The urine of the house mouse, Mus domesticus, contains large amounts of proteins that are specifically synthesized in the liver to be secreted in the urine. These proteins, termed major urinary proteins (MUPs), have multiple roles in the communication of information in urine-derived scent marks. They bind low-molecular-mass volatile pheromones, and effect their delivery to the scent mark, followed by a slow release that is controlled by the rate of dissociation from the MUPs. However, this family of proteins is extremely polymorphic, more than might be expected for a simple role of ligand binding and release. We have analysed the polymorphism in wild mice, and have now shown that the pattern of MUPs in the urine acts as a type of individuality ‘bar code’ that signals the identity of the owner of the scent mark. This multiplicity of function, from a generic ligand-binding property to an extremely specific individuality, sets the MUPs apart from other lipocalin family proteins that are involved in chemical signalling.

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