Museum Blog

AChemS 2012 Day 4: The Rebirth of Taste

Posted 8/8/2012 12:08 AM by Nicole Garneau | Comments

We've all experienced the angst of a burned tongue, the subsequent moaning and groaning about it, the diminished level of joy when eating. And then, out of nowhere it seems, the tongue is back and ready for action.

It's the miracle of life, um, kind of, at the cellular level, and it's all thanks to stem cells.

Stem cells are super cool, like way-nerdy-sci-fi super cool, and I'm disappointed that they really haven't got a fair shake from the media. All we hear about on the news is the unrest related to embryonic stem cells and research. Ok, step back and don't worry, I'm not about to go on a political tirade, but I am going to use taste to show just amazing stem cells are in your body and how they are working for you right now.

To kick this off, it's important to realize that every single one of your cells has the exactly the same DNA, and this is your cookbook for making all the things your body needs. So if every cell has the same cookbook then how in the worId do we have so many different types of cells? Well, the straight-forward answer is that different cell types pick and choose a unique combo of recipes within the cookbook to make (each recipe is a gene). This picking and choosing stage is highly regulated in your body and is called Gene Expression.

So where do stem cells come in? They are like the culinary school of cells, spitting out brand new cooks into brand new kitchens with the whole cookbook at their disposal. And these new chefs, called "precursor cells" start to get signals that show them what their speciality will be and which recipes they will begin to use, and which ones they will never use. As the chefs/precursor cells "learn more" they start going down a specialty path, and no longer have the ability to be a generalist, they become rather forever a specialist. A pastry chef/muscle cell, a sushi chef/neuron and so on.

This process happens in so many parts of your body, from the liver, to the bone marrow, to the brain, and yes, even in your taste buds. And it helps us to have a new supply of cells throughout our lives, so that when cells die or are damaged we can replace them and keep on keeping on.

Dr. Linda Barlow of the University of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Taste and Smell Center, kicked off the 8 am session this morning with how this happens on the tongue. She and colleagues are trying to figure out which cells in the taste bud are the precursor cells, what kind of characteristics they have, and what specialty cells they turn into.


She and her team have looked closely at a cell type that lives at the very bottom of the taste bud and expresses the recipe for a protein called "sonic hedge hog" Shh for short. Worth noting that I use to love playing that video game. So they have a candidate precursor cell, they know some of the characteristics and now they are doing really cool tracking experiments to visualize what happens to these Shh cells after they are born from stem cells. She showed beautiful pictures of where they go in the taste bud and based on which genes they start to use she can determine which specialty taste cells they are destined to become.

Research like Dr. Barlow's on how taste cells are born and reborn helps scientists not only understand more about the taste system in development and repair, but it also sheds a lot of light on the fascinating role of stem cells. Basic science like this is the foundation for all the amazing discoveries in human health that help us everyday, and will continue to be the foundation for the amazing discoveries to come.

What a nice way to close a fantastic 2012 AChemS conference. It makes me excited to get back in the lab with the team and get cranking on discoveries of our own.


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