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.
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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
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!