Homing in on a receptor for the fifth taste

Humans can recognize five tastes: bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami. Of the five, however, umami is the most difficult to describe its the flavor associated with monosodium glutamate (MSG). Now, researchers have identified a taste receptor that responds to amino acids, including umami, and they hope to develop a more precise description of the molecular events that allow the brain to perceive the five different tastes.

With the discovery of the new receptor, scientists have now identified taste receptors for amino acids, bitter and sweet tastes. Given that many amino acids are essential components of our diet, this work may also aid understanding of how animals, including humans, regulate nutritional intake to achieve a balanced diet. Better understanding of taste receptors may permit scientists in the food industry to formulate new products that have specific tastes.

A research team led by Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Charles S. Zuker at the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas J. P. Ryba of the National Institutes of Health reported the identification of an amino-acid taste receptor in an advanced online publication in Nature on February 25, 2002.

Zukers and Rybas groups previously collaborated in discovering sweet and bitter taste receptors. After they had identified those receptors, they set their sights on finding a taste receptor for amino acids, reasoning that one must exist because it had long been known that humans have the ability to taste umami and other amino acids. "Since amino acids are essential building blocks of biologically important molecules such as proteins, it made evolutionary sense for there to be a taste pathway that would make amino acids attractive to consume," said Zuker.

In their search for the amino acid receptor, the scientists focused on T1R receptors, a family of proteins that are distantly relat

Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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