Do people with Mexican ancestry have more fungiform papillae than people with Eastern European ancestry?

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by Valeria Martinez, 2012 Teen Science Scholar

Today's blog is written by one of our 2012 Teen Science Scholars, Valeria Martinez.  Over the summer she learned how we collect and process information in the Genetics of Taste study.  She delved into the data and came up with the question she wanted to investigate from start to finish: question, hypothesis, data, statistics, conclusion, and finally, new questions the data inspired.  Below is the culmination of her summer at the Museum!

Imagine the sweet taste you get when you devour creamy chocolate or the salty taste left in your mouth after eating potato chips. Focus on the textures of the food such as the rough surface of almonds or the smooth sides of ice that disperse in your mouth. Such sensations can only be possible through structures in your mouth. 

Papillae are structures located on our tongue that hold numerous numbers of taste buds. These papillae are integrated with nerves; these nerves send signals such as temperature changes, textures and pain receptors to the trigeminal nerve which transfers sensations from the mouth to the brain.

        Fungiform papillae are the large pink bumps that stand out on this tongue

In my research project I compared the papillae counts of two self-reported ancestry groups: Mexican and Eastern European.  My hypothesis was that the self-reported Eastern European group would have a greater amount of papillae compared to the self-reported Mexican ancestry group. The reasoning behind my hypothesis was that the traditional food for the Mexican population consists of potent flavors like chili peppers that set off pain receptors in the brain. Over time, the Mexican population would adapt to have less papillae due to the fact that their papillae were constantly exposed to the harsh tastes. Since the Eastern European foods consist of more subtle flavors, their papillae count would be higher than the Mexican ancestry group.


Table 1

Self-Reported Ancestry Sample Size Average Papillae
Eastern European 95 55
Mexican 19 54


My results showed that the median was higher for the Eastern European group (data not shown).  The mean was also slightly higher with 55 papillae for Eastern European ancestry and 54 for Mexican ancestry (Table 1). These results suggest that my hypothesis is correct, but my data was not statistically significant. This could be due to the low sample size of the Mexican ancestry group.

In future experiments I would be interested in looking also at the body fat percentages of each ancestry group. Perhaps the ancestry group with the greater amount of papillae would also have a higher body fat percentage because they are able to taste more and, therefore, may consume more food.

                              Valeria For Website

                              Valeria using the nanospectrophotometer

Valeria Martinez participated as a Teen Science Scholar in the summer before her senior year.  She will be attending college next year and is planning to pursue a degree in pediatrics and participate in an international medical aid program.

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