The Salty Story of a Sweet Theory Gone Sour

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By Nicole Garneau, PhD

In our Genetics of Taste lab, we study Tas2r38 (allows us to taste certain bitter substances), only ONE of the MANY genes that allow us to perceive taste, but just because here at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science we only study bitter doesn't mean we don't love each of the other tastes as well: savory (Umami), salty, sweet and sour.

So today, we decided to tell you more about these tastes and pay homage to the researchers who finally debunked the tongue map. You remember the tongue map right?

Well, there have been a series of studies that found that individual tasting cells are not actually found clumped together in distinct areas of the tongue as we once thought. Let's talk a little bit about each of these tastes.

Sweet: the ability to taste sweet tells our brain that our body is getting energy-rich nutrients (like carbohydrates).

Umami (savory):  the "newest" known taste, it allows us to taste amino acids (like in meat broth) which are the building blocks of proteins that make our body.
Salty: helps our brain keep track of ions and electrolyte balance. Interestingly, the identity of  "salt" receptor cells are still not 100% known. Although there have been many researchers that have published their results- there still is no consensus.

Sour: tells our brain that we are ingesting something acidic (and potentially harmful, like spoiled food).

And of course, there is Bitter: allows us to taste potential toxins (like from poisonous plants).

So what does this mean for us and our tongues if this map is so rightfully wrong? It means that each of those areas highlighted above contain bumps, called papillae, that contain taste buds- and these taste buds are made of a collection of cells, so you can have taster cells for different tastes in the same taste bud.

So the moral of the story: forget about using just the front of your tongue when trying not to taste the sourness of something sour- your taste buds are in every taste papillae and they contain cells that can taste sour, salty, umami, sweet and bitter!

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