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Researchers identify the cells and receptor for sensing sour taste

In the last seven years, Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher Charles S. Zuker and Nicholas J.P. Ryba at the National Institutes of Health have worked together to identify the cells, receptors and signaling mechanisms for three of the five tastes humans can sense -- sweet, bitter, and umami (the taste of monosodium glutamate). Now, Zuker, Ryba, and their team of researchers have identified the cells and the receptor responsible for sour taste, the primary gateway in all mammals for the detection of spoiled and unripe food sources.

The receptor is found in a subpopulation of taste receptor cells of the tongue that do not function in sweet, bitter, or umami taste, the researchers report in the August 24, 2006, issue of the journal Nature.

This finding is "very satisfying," said Zuker, "because it seals the case that we had built before with sweet, bitter, and umami, showing that each taste is mediated by fully dedicated sensors." A contrasting view held that individual tongue cells detect more than one taste modality, with the quality of the taste being encoded in a complicated pattern of nerve signals sent to the brain.

The hunt for the sour receptor began with a search of DNA and protein sequence databases. Angela Huang, a graduate student in Zuker's lab at the University of California, San Diego, and the lead author of the paper, screened the mouse genome for all of the genes encoding proteins that have transmembrane domains -- sections of the protein that allow the protein to be located in cell membranes.

"That screen narrowed the list significantly, from 30,000 to about 10,000," Huang said. She then used what Zuker calls "a stroke of ingenuity" to reduce the list further. Proteins that could detect sour compounds are likely to be found only in small numbers of tissues, including taste cells in the tongue. Huang therefore eliminated from the list all those proteins that are expressed in many different tissues. "T
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
23-Aug-2006


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