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Separate genetic mutations gave people, chimps bitter-taste sensitivity

molecular structure of the gene, Wooding and his fellow researchers pinpointed a mutation in a single nucleotide--one of the structural units of DNA--as the difference between the taster and non-taster forms found in chimps. A single nucleotide's difference indicates the mutation occurred long after humans and chimps diverged, Wooding said.

Evidence that chimpanzees have a "broken" form of the gene indicates that taste sensitivity likely was diminished in chimps for different reasons than in humans.

Wooding and Bamshad theorize chimps lost some PTC sensitivity as a result of plants disappearing and their diets being altered over eons, so that they were no longer pressured to taste the poisons found in those plants. But it also could be from a change in chimp behavior, such as a change in diet choice, Wooding said.

"Different mutations in humans and chimps might have emerged for different reasons," he said, "but in both cases we think what's driving it is the need to avoid toxins found in plants, which are common in primate diets."

The PTC gene is one of about 30 known to produce sensitivity to bitter tastes. A national group of U.S. researchers, including Mark F. Leppert, Ph.D., professor and co-chair of the U's Department of Human Genetics and Hillary Coon, Ph.D, research associate professor of psychiatry, discovered the PTC gene in 2002. If scientists can unravel the nature of sensitivity to PTC and other bitter chemicals, they may be able to produce compounds with important ramifications for human nutrition and diet, according to Wooding and Bamshad.

"Ultimately, we'd like to connect the patterns of variation in genes to human behavior," Wooding said.


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Contact: Phil Sahm
Phil.Sahm@hsc.utah.edu
801-581-2517
University of Utah Health Sciences Center
12-Apr-2006


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