Research Article: Taste Perception: Cracking the Code

Date Published: March 16, 2004

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Jane Bradbury

Abstract: Our sense of taste begins with taste buds and ends in the brain. Researchers are beginning to unravel the mechanisms and connections that lie in between.

Partial Text: The ability to taste food is a life-and-death matter. Failure to recognise food with a high enough caloric content could mean a slow death from malnutrition. Failure to detect a poison could result in near-instant expiration. And now, as researchers begin to understand some of the nuts and bolts of taste perception, it seems that the sense of taste may also have more subtle effects on health.

At the front line of the taste sensory system are the taste buds—onion-shaped structures on the tongue and elsewhere in the mouth (Figure 1). Up to 100 taste receptor cells—epithelial cells with some neuronal properties—are arranged in each taste bud. In the tongue, the taste buds are innervated by the chorda tympani (a branch of the facial nerve) and the glossopharyngeal nerve. These nerves carry the taste messages to the brain.

Taste has been actively researched for many decades. During the 20th century, electrophysiologists and other researchers worked hard to understand this seemingly simple sense system. Then, in 1991, the first olfactory receptors were described. These proteins, which are exposed on the surface of cells in the nose, bind to volatile chemicals and allow us to detect smells. This landmark discovery, in part, encouraged many established taste researchers to investigate the molecular aspects of taste.

The bitter receptors fell first to the onslaught of the UCSD–NIDCR team and other molecular biologists. In 1999, the ability to taste propylthiouracil, a bitter tasting compound, had been linked to a locus on human Chromosome 5p15. Reasoning that this variation might be due to alterations in the coding sequence for a bitter receptor, the UCSD–NIDCR researchers used the draft of the human genome to search for sequences that resembled GPCRs on Chromosome 5p15. ‘That was how we found T2R1, the first bitter receptor, and, subsequently, a whole family of T2Rs’, says Zuker.

The salty and sour receptors may be very different from the GPCRs involved in bitter, sweet, and umami perception, which bind complex molecules on the outside of the cell and transmit a signal into the cell. For salty and sour perception, the taste cell only needs to detect simple ions. One way to do this may be to use ion channels—proteins that form a channel through which specific inorganic ions can diffuse. Changes in cellular ion concentrations could then be detected and transmitted to the nervous system.

With many taste receptors now identified, researchers are turning to a long-standing question in taste perception: how is taste coded? When we eat, our tongue is bombarded with tastants. How is their detection and transduction of information organised so that the appropriate response is elicited? Taste physiologist Sue Kinnamon (Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, United States) explains the two theories of taste-coding. In the ‘labelled-line’ model, sweet-sensitive cells, for example, are hooked up to sweet-sensitive nerve fibres that go to the brain and code sweet. If you stimulate that pathway, says Kinnamon, ‘you should elicit the appropriate behavioural response without any input from other cell types’. In the ‘cross-fibre’ model, the pattern of activity over many receptors codes taste. This model predicts that taste receptor cells are broadly tuned, responding to many tastants. Support for this theory, says Kinnamon, comes from electrical recordings from receptor cells and from nerves innervating the taste buds that show that one cell can respond to more than one taste quality.

The periphery of the taste sensory system has yielded many of its secrets, but relatively little is known about the transduction pathways in taste, how taste cells talk to the nervous system, or about events further downstream in the brain. How are signals from taste receptors integrated with those from olfactory receptors to form a representation of complex food flavours, for example? With their expanding molecular toolbox, researchers can now delve deeper into these aspects of taste perception. This may tell us not only about taste but about how the nervous system in general is put together, says Ryba.



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