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U. Iowa study adds to understanding of salt-taste

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Saltiness often enhances our enjoyment of certain foods -- think French fries or a Margarita. But salt is an essential nutrient for humans and other animals, and far from being a trivial matter of taste, the ability to detect salt is critical for survival. A University of Iowa study provides insight on how humans and other animals are able to detect salt. The study appears in the July 3 issue of Neuron.

"Given that salt is essential for survival, it is not surprising that animals have developed the ability to detect salt, even at low concentrations. This sense allows them to seek out, and then consume salt," said Michael Welsh, M.D., the Roy J. Carver Biomedical Research Chair in Internal Medicine and Physiology and Biophysics, UI Professor, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. "We were interested in identifying the receptors that detect small quantities of salt."

The ability to detect when something is too salty is also important. Consuming very high concentrations of salt could be potentially harmful.

Previous research suggested a role for a specific type of protein in salt-sensing. Lei Liu, Ph.D., UI postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study, and colleagues turned to the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) to investigate these proteins, known as ion channel proteins.

Fruit flies and humans share the ability to detect salt. Fruit flies also respond to salt in ways that are similar to those seen in humans and other animals. For example, fruit flies are attracted to low salt but are repelled by high salt.

"In humans the taste system is pretty much a puzzle because it is hard to study," Liu said. "But in fruit flies it is very easy to study and you can quickly test ideas. Also, fruit flies are a great genetic model where you can easily screen many different genes to determine what they do and how they interact."

The ion channel genes studied are called pickpocket (ppk). The UI
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Contact: Jennifer Brown
jennifer-l-brown@uiowa.edu
319-335-9917
University of Iowa
2-Jul-2003


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