The Genetics of Taste Lab

Who We Are

The Genetics of Taste Lab is the first community scientist-driven human genetics lab in the country.

Humans are 99.9% genetically identical. The 0.1% is what makes us different – in ways you can see, and in ways you can’t. The Genetics of Taste team studies how these small differences in our DNA have a huge impact on the way we taste.

Curious? Watch in real life! Peek into our lab 364 days a year. We are located in the back of the award-winning exhibition, Expedition Health on the Museum’s 2nd floor.

Maybe watching isn't enough, which is why we want YOU to be a part of our research. The Lab is open for public participation in taste research from November through August annually. This experience is free with Museum admission, and is subject to the availability of our community scientists working in the lab that day. We welcome anyone 8 years or older (with legal guardian present).

The Genetics of Taste Lab is funded in part by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (R25OD021909).

Genes and Grains (2018-2019)

Our Current Study: GENES AND GRAINS

 

Help us with our research! Our Genes and Grains study runs from November 2018 to August 2019. Visit us in Expedition Health to participate. 

 

OUR QUESTION

Do YOU taste whole wheat differently because of YOUR unique DNA?

 

STUDY BACKGROUND

Wheat is the leading cereal consumed in Colorado and Colorado is the 7th leading wheat producing state in America. In 2016, Colorado farmers planted over 2.35 million acres of wheat and produced 105.1 million bushels of wheat.

 

Flavor is one of the key factors when people decide if they want to eat whole grain products.  Many people don’t eat enough whole grain and have said they find the taste strong and unpleasant.  We have partnered with the Western Wheat Quality Lab of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Colorado State University to study the role that of wheat and human genetics in the perception of whole wheat flavor.  By finding how much of the perceived flavor is due to wheat variety and how much is due to differences in how people taste, we can begin to figure out how to overcome these objections to eating whole grains.

 

The study is supported by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health (Award # R25OD021909).

 

OUR HYPOTHESES

  • The variation of TAS2R4 gene you have will play a significant role in how much you like whole wheat and how strongly you taste it. 
  • People with different variations of the TAS2R4 gene will prefer different types of wheat.

 

RESULTS

We’ll update this page as we analyze our results, so check back in early 2019!

Savory and Sour Study (2017-2018)

OUR QUESTION

Does adding sour (acidity) change our detection of umami taste?

What role do our genes play in our detection of sour and umami taste?

STUDY BACKGROUND

Surprisingly little is known about the way people experience different tastes in combination. This study was designed to help us understand how sour impacts the taste of umami, and whether genetics plays a role.

Umami (also known as savory), is the fifth taste. It is the taste of glutamate, an amino acid, found in many food sources such as meat, mushrooms, and aged cheese. Umami rich foods and sour foods are often combined in meals around the world, so we were curious to study whether sour has an effect on how we taste umami.   

OUR HYPOTHESIS

Increasing the concentration of sour in a sample (while leaving the umami concentration constant) will increase the perception of umami.

RESULTS

We are currently in the process of DNA and data analysis. Of the two genes humans have for umami detection, we’re looking at one: T1R1. We want to see if someone’s variation of this gene relates to how strongly they taste umami.

We’ll update this page as we analyze our results, so check back in early 2019!

 

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The Savory and Sour Study ran from November 2017 to August 2018.  1,451 participants were enrolled with the help of 23 community scientists.  The study was supported by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health (Award # R25OD021909).

The Science of Sour Study (2016-2017)

OUR QUESTION

What role do genes play in how strongly we detect sour taste?

 

STUDY BACKGROUND

Sour is one of the five basic tastes, yet scientists know little about how we perceive it.  And, not all sours are the same.  Different sours have different levels of acidity, and some are perceived to be stronger than others even at the same concentration.  We worked to determine if variation in how strongly you taste different sours is due to your genetic makeup.

Citric Acid: This is the most commonly researched acid and is found in lemons and limes.  It is frequently used as an additive in foods and home care products.

Acetic Acid: This is commonly found in vinegar (~5% acetic acid) and is used frequently in pickling.  Acetic acid is responsible for vinegar’s pungent smell and sour taste.

Lactic Acid: This naturally occurs in the body.  It is also used commercially in foods like yogurt, kombucha, sour dough bread, and some cottage cheese.

Malic Acid: This naturally occurs in all living organisms and is most commonly found in fruits/vegetables.  It is responsible for the distinctive taste of rhubarb and gives tartness to wine.

Tartaric Acid: This naturally occurs in many plants, most commonly grapes.  The crystals sometimes found on the bottom of a wine cork are tartaric acid.

 

OUR HYPOTHESIS

Different people will taste sours differently.  Some may be more sensitive to one sour than another because of genetic variations.

 

RESULTS

We plan to conduct a genome wide association study (GWAS), which will help us determine which gene or genes are responsible for sour taste detection.

 

 

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The Science of Sour Study ran from November 2016 to August 2017.  1,791 participants were enrolled with the help of 24 community scientists.  The study was supported by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institutes of Health (Award # R25OD021909).

A Sweet-Tasting Study (2015-2016)

  • OUR QUESTION

    How do the bacteria in your mouth (called the oral microbiome) influence your ability to taste sweet and affect your overall health?

    How do the taste of sweet and the bacteria in your mouth interact?

    STUDY BACKGROUND

    We are interested in one particular species of bacteria found in the mouth called Selenomas noxia (S. noxia).  This bacteria has been shown to be a good predictor of gum health and overall health.  Building upon previous studies, the purpose of this study is to explore several areas including:

    • How the amount of S. noxia differs between people
    • If S. noxia influences your sensitivity to sweet taste
    • If S. noxia is associated with oral health or weight status


    A great deal of scientific and public interest has developed around the gut microbiome – think about the interest in pre- and probiotics for digestive health – but much less is known about the oral microbe. What we do know is that the ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria is important for health. When there is too much of a certain species of bacteria, S. noxia, in the mouth, your risk for health problems like obesity and periodontal disease may increase. Because S. noxia feeds off of sugars, we investigated if differences in S. noxia ratios impacts sweet taste. We also worked to determine if families and friends share similarities in their S. noxia ratios compared to unrelated individuals. 

    OUR HYPOTHESIS

    The more you like sweet taste, the more S. noxia you will have.

     

    RESULTS

    Sweet liker status was determined if your liking of sweet things increased with higher concentration, up to a point at which it typically plateaued. We used those results to examine individuals’ frequency and amount of beverage intake. Check out our published findings below!

    OUR PUBLICATIONS

     

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    The Sweet-Tasting Study ran from November 2015 to August 2016. 1,112 participants enrolled with the help of 18 community scientists. 

Fatty Acid Taste Study (2013-2015)

OUR QUESTION

Assuming humans can detect the taste of fatty acids, how does it happen?

 

STUDY BACKGROUND

Research suggests that humans can detect the taste of fatty acids, but how this occurs is not known. The Genetics of Taste Lab looked into this question. Using an omega-6 essential fatty acid (linoleic acid), the Lab examined both genetic and environmental factors that might contribute to the ability to taste this important nutrient.

Scientists have long accepted that sweet, sour, salty and bitter are basic tastes. More recently, umami (savory) was added to the list. And now through the findings of our study, as well as those of our collaborators, we can finally provide strong evidence that there is a sixth taste: fat, or as it is starting to be known in the land of taste, oleogustus.

OUR HYPOTHESIS

Fat is the sixth taste.


RESULTS
The study had dual purposes. The first was to determine whether people can, in fact, discern the presence of linoleic acid and discern the difference between higher and lower concentrations without using sense of smell. In a survey of 735 subjects, ranging in age from 8 to 90, of white, black, Asian and Latino ethnicity, the answer was definitively yes, people can detect the taste — but to different degrees.

The second was if taste acuity plays a role in obesity. In answer to this question, the researchers found no link between %BF and ability to perceive the taste of the linoleic acid. 

The results also revealed an interesting pattern in sensitivity. Women were much better than men at discerning the taste, and young people 17 and under, especially girls, were better than older people.

With these results, we helped with one step in the taste determination process: demonstrating perception of fat taste without the sense of smell.

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The Fatty Acid Taste Study ran from November 2014 to August 2015.  1,020 participants enrolled with the help of 29 community scientists.  This two-year study was led by Nicole Garneau PhD and Richard Mattes PhD, and made possible by a partnership between the Health Science and Visitor Programs Departments at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the Nutrition Science Department at Purdue University.

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Bitter Taste Study (2009-2013)

OUR QUESTIONS

  • Does variation of the TAS2R38 gene play a role in the perception of propylthiouracil (PROP)?
  • Does fungiform papillae (FP) density correlate PROP perception?
  • Can a community science model be used to conduct sound scientific research?

 

STUDY BACKGROUND

The Bitter Study was the first study conducted in the Genetics of Taste Lab. This pilot was a replication of previous studies done on the TAS2R38 gene. We wanted to show that a community science model could be used to conduct real scientific research.

Our pilot study had people taste propylthiouracil (PROP), a bitter chemical that some people can taste while others cannot.  Tasting PROP is a dominant trait, and about 70% of the population can taste it while 30% cannot.  Most of this ability or inability to taste is genetic and due to three small variations (called SNPs) of nucleotides in the gene TAS2R38. 

The pilot study focused on the gene TAS2R38, and how changes to this gene affect how humans experience the taste of bitter. The study also worked to better understand the role of fungiform papillae on the tongue and if the number of fungiform papillae could be used as a metric for predicting sensitivity to the bitter tastant PROP. Toward this effort, the citizen scientists led by Research Coordinators Meghan Sloan and Tiffany Nuessle developed a new methodology called the Denver Papillae Protocol for determining FP density on the tongue.

 

OUR HYPOTHESES

  • Variation of the TAS2R38 will play a role in how one perceives propylthiouracil (PROP)
  • Age and sex will also play a role in how one perceives PROP
  • Approximately 30% of participants will not be able to detect PROP
  • Fungiform papillae density will correlate to how intensely one perceives PROP

 

RESULTS

We confirmed previous findings that age, sex, and variation of TAS2R38 gene play a role in PROP taste.  However, we couldn’t show that fungiform papilla density correlates to PROP intensity ratings.

 

NOTABLE FIRSTS

  • We created a best method for counting fungiform papillae which revolutionized the taste field!
  • For the first time, a volunteer community scientist partnered with staff to write a manuscript!

In the News

  • Old Gold & Black. Bilodeau, S. "Crowdsourcing Aids Data Collection." (09/20/2018)
  • HuffPost. Iseman, C. "Hate IPAs? It's becasue your genetics programmed you to dislike bitter beers." (06/28/2018)
  • TED Radio Hour. Raz, G. "Nicole Garneau: Are There More Than Five Basic Tastes." (re-aired 1/2017)
  • Dofta-Smaka-Njut (Swedish). "Ol & Chili, Malmo Ol & Whiskey Festival." (03/09/2018)
  • ColoradoBiz Magazine, Top 5 Announced! "Nicole Garneau, Taking taste to a new level." (01/2018)
  • ColoradoBiz Magazine. "GenXYZ Top 25 Young Professionals." (01/2018)
  • Vail Daily. Driscoll, K. “Breckenridge Big Beers festival: Neuroscience explains why beer isn’t your best bet to knock down spicy foods.” (1/10/2018)
  • Denver Post (print). Frank, J. “This style of beer actually makes the sting of hot wings worse.” (1/10/2018)
  • The Know. Frank, J. “This style of beer actually makes the sting of hot wings worse.” (1/8/2018)
  • Telemundo Denver. “El que sabe, sabe. ¿Qué sabes de sabores?” (12/18/2017)
  • Maine Policy Review. "Cutting edge citizen science in the desert and in a museum." (12/2017)
  • SoundCloud. Thode, KM. “Interview Podcast with Dr. Nicole Garneau.” (12/10/2017)
  • Fox31. “Savory and Sour Taste Study." (11/29/17)
  • The Peer Revue. Nuessle, W. “Tiffany Nuessle takes on taste.” (11/21/2017)
  • CBS4. Hillan, J. "Denver Museum Of Nature & Science Needs Taste Testers For Study.” (11/15/2017)
  • 5280 Magazine. Mickelsen, D. "Taste Tests." (11/2017)
  • Planete + (France). Scala, S. "Nos 5 Sens, LES MYSTÈRES DU GOÛT." (10/25/2017)
  • Telemundo Denver. “¿Quieres saber cómo funciona tu cuerpo?” (10/17/2017)
  • DIY Sci TV Show (Europe only), Season Two. (09/2017)
  • BrainScoop. Graslie, E. "The Human Biology Collection." 07/19/2017).
  • Denver Post. Carmen, D. "Everybody loses on in the war on science." (4/23/2017).
  • Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine. Johnson, G. "Ms. Understood: How to market beer to women." (04/2017)
  • Colorado State University. Jensen, B. "Taste of Success: Nicole Garneau puts beer on the map." (04/2017)
  • Met Media. Holt, R. "Nicole Garneau studies age-old pairings brought from kitchen to lab." (3/11/2017)
  • CraftBeer.com. Kellogg, B. "8 Women in Craft Beer Who are Making a Mark Right Now." (3/7/2017)
  • Denver Post. Worthington, D. "'Beer me' in the name of science: museum brings back popular crowdtasting study." (2/23/17)
  • TED Radio Hour. Raz, G. "Nicole Garneau: Are There More Than Five Basic Tastes." (1/2017)
  • How to market beer to women. Johnson, G. Publisher, Women Enjoying Beer. (09/2016)
  • Denver Post. Frank, J. "The Science Behind Why You Love (or Hate) Certain Beers, If At All." (3/2016) 
  • Colorado Matters, Colorado Public Radio. Maddox, K. “Beer, Food And ... Genetics? It's On Tap At The Museum Of Nature And Science.” (3/2016)
  • We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians, and Scientists Are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time. Platoni, K. Publisher, Basic Books. 2015.
  • Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros. Herz & Conley. Publisher, Voyageur Press. 2015.
  • Colorado Matters, Colorado Public Radio. Dukakis, A. "Is Bacteria The Reason For Your Sweet Tooth?" (11/2015)
  • KUNC. Ogburn, S. "Is Fat The Sixth Taste? Denver Museum Goers Help Scientists With Mystery." (03/2015)
  • CBS4. Gionet, A. "Girls & Science Aims To Change Thinking About Careers." (02/2015)
  • Colorado Public Radio.  Denerstein, B.  “How accurate is that 'Alien?' Denver scientists head to the movies.” (7/2014)
  • IM'UNIQUE. Oswego Productions. “A healthy world where all people are inspired, united and unique.” (6/2014)
  • Cuisine of Loneliness. Cole, C.A. “The Blue Tongue Project: Finding Inspiration at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science”(6/2014)
  • Hispanic Business. “Denver Museum of Nature & Science Scientist Challenges Supertaster Phenomenon,” (6/2014)  
  • Medical News Today. “Researchers challenge scientific theory with the help of citizen scientists.” (5/2014)
  • Daily Mail Online (UK). Macrae, F.  “Bumpy tongue? It doesn't make you a top taster: How whether we like spicy or bitter foods is actually determined by our genes.” (5/2014)
  • BioCompare. “Citizens Help Researchers to Challenge Scientific Theory.”  (5/2014)
  • Science Daily. “Supertasters do not have particularly high density of taste buds on tongue, crowdsourcing shows.  (5/2014)
  • redOrbit. Smith, B. “Taste Receptor Gene Determines How Well We Sense Food.” (5/14)
  • The Independent. Connor, S. “Taste has nothing to do with the bumpiness of your tongue, say scientists.” (5/2014)

*please note, the article incorrectly identifies Museum guests that participated in the research study as "citizen scientists." This term has a very specific meaning representing volunteers that are trained to collect, prepare and process, and help analyze data. We have requested a correction with the author, but regretfully were not granted it. Therefore additional news outlets that indexed this story are not captured here.

  • French Tribune. Totolos, B. “Sensory Papillae’s Density not Linked with Ability to Taste Certain Kind of Bitter Components.” (5/2014)
  • MedicalPress. “Citizens help researchers to challenge scientific theory.” (5/2014)
  • MileHighTEDx. Faktorow, S. “Speaking at [email protected]: An Insider’s Perspective.” (5/2014)
  • SciStarter.com. Murphy-Niedziela, M. & Bui L. “The Genetics of Taste: A Sixth Taste?” (2/2014)
  • MEDILLreports. Actman, J. “Link between genes and a taste for fatty acids.” (2/2014)
  • StudentScience. Brookshire, B. “Using citizen science to find a new taste.” (12/2013)
  • NewsSentinel. Slaby, M.J. “Purdue professor works to determine if fat is 6th taste sense.” (11/2013)
  • Westword. Hemmert, N. “Denver Museum of Nature and Science on the hunt for a sixth taste sense.” (11/2013)
  • 9NEWS. Dyer, K. “Science on tap: the science behind beer.” (7/2013)
  • 5280 Online.  Hausheer, J. “Science on Tap: Denver Beer Co. Serves a Brew Made from the Wilds of City Park. Really.” (7/2013)
  • Conoce Colorado.  Guzmán, J. “Visita al museo de Ciencias Naturales de Denver.” (7/2013)
  • Northglenn-Thornton Sentinel. “DMNS role in healthcare showcased in national report.” (7/2013)
  • Westword. Shikes, J. “The DMNS and Denver Beer Co conduct a wild brewing experiment with City Park yeast.” (6/2013)
  • Microbes Rule! Martin, M. “ASMCUE, Citizen Science, and a Surprise!” (5/2013)
  • Total Health Blog. Eytan, T. “Participation in Science, too – at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.” (2/2013)
  • 5280 Magazine. Sukin, G. “Citizen Scientist.” (1/2013)
  • Denver Post. Davidson, J. “A Night in Pompeii benefits Denver Museum of Nature & Science.” (11/2012)
  • Denver Post, YourHub. Wilbanks, C. “Expedition Health at Denver Museum of Nature and Science.”  (6/2012)
  • University of Colorado, Newsroom. “Our Own Science Guy.” (1/2012)
  • Colorado Bioscience Institute. (12/2012)
  • Denver Business Journal. “Congratulations to our 2012 Forty under 40 Nominees.” February 10-16, 2012. A24.
  • American Society for Microbiology Microbe Magazine. “International Affairs: Millis-Colwell Exchange Program.” 11(6):505. 2011.
  • Denver Westword Blogs. Klosowski, T. “We talk with the DMNS Curator of Health Sciences about Gattaca.” (4/2011).
  • PBS Newshour Online. Jacobson, R. “The Bitter Taste of Genetics.” (12/2010)
  • Around the Oval. Etter, B. “A Bitter Taste in the Mouth.” Winter 2010: 6.
  • Rocky Mountain PBS. “Genetics of Taste.” Aired numerous times 2010-present.
  • Labconco Newsletter. Williams, K. “A New Paramount in the Rockies, Customer Spot Light.” April 2010.
  • Member Magazine.  Holtman, L. “Meet Our Newest Curator.” February/March 2010: 7.


Join Our Volunteer Research Team

Join our Research Team!

Our community lab consists of volunteers (called community scientists) as well as staff. The Lab’s scientific team, overseen by Dr. Nicole Garneau, works closely with these dedicated volunteers to execute scientific research. It is a unique opportunity for people without a background in science, or someone without access to resources to contribute to real science and receive a meaningful science-based experience.

Become a Community Scientist

Community scientists support the Genetics of Taste Lab by volunteering on regularly scheduled shifts, once a week, to collect data from Museum guests during enrollments, process and prepare DNA samples, sequence DNA and co-author scientific manuscripts. 

If you are age 16 or older, click here to apply to be a community scientist today!

 

Comunidad Student Scientists (CSS) Program 2018-2019

The Comunidad Student Scientist (CSS) program is a volunteer program in the Genetics of Taste Lab.

Our goal is to support diverse high school students (16 years or older) interested in exploring science related careers. We offer access to be a part of real scientific research. We provide support, both inside and outside the lab, to empower, build resilience, and serve as a safe space to build confidence to reach their full potential. 

If you want be a Comunidad Student Scientist (CSS), click here.

For more information, please contact [email protected]

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