The Genetics of Taste: A Sixth Taste?

The Genetics of Taste citizen science project from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science asks whether fat could be the sixth taste.

Come to your senses! SciStarter has curated a list of citizen science projects for all five senses.

Guest post by Michelle Murphy-Niedziela.

Have you ever seen this image? Well, forget it because it’s wrong.

One of the most common myths about human taste perception is the existence of a “taste map.” The taste map idea states there are regional differences in sensitivity across the human tongue for sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness.

What is true is that we sense the taste of foods via taste buds, which are clusters of taste cells that are bundled together. Most taste buds are located on small bumps on the tongue known as papillae covering the surface of the tongue.

And it’s possible that not only were we wrong about the map, there may be more basic tastes than we thought! The basic tastes are traditionally sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (This is a savory taste, like in chicken or miso soup).

Just a few weeks ago, scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center announced that humans can smell fat. Usually, the smell is almost always detected before taste of a food. When you walk into the kitchen, you may be able to recognize what is cooking by its smell. Monell found that fat is one of those smells that we can recognize. But can we taste it?

The citizen science efforts from the community-based Genetics of Taste Lab at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, led by curator Dr. Nicole Garneau, is teaming up with Purdue University’s Dr. Rick Mattes in groundbreaking research into a 6th taste: FAT!


Anecdotally, we know we can recognize creamy and buttery. But no one has been able to prove that people have the ability to detect fatty acids in food. Research does suggest that it is possible, but no one knows how.

To look at this question, the Genetics of Taste Lab is pursuing a new public research study. Using omega-6 fatty acid, we will examine both genetic and environmental factors that might contribute to the ability to taste this nutrient. – Dr. Garneau

With the help of Dr. Mattes’ lab, Dr. Garneau and her citizen science team are in training and recruiting mode to enroll 3,000 people, including kids 8 years or older, for the two-year study. Citizen scientists from the community are getting NIH training and learning genetics research techniques. The citizen scientists are mostly new to science and scientific methodology, ranging from ages 16-80+. Dr. Garneau would like these “ambassadors of science” to “elevate awareness of the chemical senses.”

Pilot data collection started in November 2013. The study itself involves linoleic acid taste training and 4 taste tests. Families are encouraged to participate as it will be fun for all ages and the team is hoping for a wide age range including related and unrelated individuals. The study will investigate the detection and sensitivity to different fatty acid concentration on dissolvable taste strips made at the Purdue lab and compare results to other information such as health, body type and other biometric data as well as performing a genome wide association study (GWAS).

The team is also hoping to crowdsource a name for this new taste. And they’ve already started to get some interesting suggestions (“pungent”, “plastic”, etc.) from the participants so far.

Dr. Garneau and colleagues will be presenting their preliminary data at several academic conferences this year, including AChemS (Association for Chemoreception Sciences) and SSIB (Society for the study of Ingestive Behavior).

Next up on the taste menu for this Denver team? Maybe spicy and umami.

Psst! Check out researcher Nicole Garneau’s recent TEDx talk about her research! Even better is her blog post about the experience.


Images: Courtesy of Science Based Life, Michelle Savard

Dr. Michelle Murphy Niedziela is a behavioral neuroscience expert in neuropsychology, psychology and consumer science with a focus on flavor and fragrance technologies. Michelle obtained a PhD and masters in neuroscience and biopsychology from Purdue University and a BS in psychology from Florida State University. In the past she’s worked at Johnson & Johnson, Mars Chocolate and is now a neuromarketing Scientific Director at HCD Research. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys cooking, blogging and traveling. Follow her on Twitter @nerdoscientism and her blog.

Categories: Citizen Science, Guest Contributor

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