Genetics of Taste: A Flavor for Health
The genes responsible for our ability to perceive taste have
been finely tuned by evolution to ensure the survival of the human
race. Our body can recognize the nutrients and chemicals we put in
it so that we're able to properly nourish ourselves, as well as
avoid foods and substances that might be harmful.
Genetics of Taste: A Flavor for Health is a community-based,
participatory research study in Lab Central in Expedition Health. Its main focus is
on a gene cleverly named tas2r38, pronounced "taster 38." This is
the gene that determines if you can taste the bitter compound
phenylthiocarbamide(PTC) and its chemical relatives
propylthiouracil (PROP) and vinylthiooxazolidon, found in
vegetables like broccoli and spinach.
"We hypothesize that where your ancestors came from more than
1,000 years ago may have influenced how your tas2r38 gene evolved,"
said Dr. Nicole Garneau. "If your ancestors came from a part of the
world that had toxic, bitter-tasting plants, you would have the
ability to taste the bitterness, and that ability to distinguish
between edible and poisonous plants would have meant survival."
The study is also questioning how tas2r38, as well as the amount
of taste buds a person has, plays a role in the lives of modern
humans. The health sciences team is particularly interested in how
the ability to taste may or may not influence how much we eat. In
the study, participants' tongues are temporarily stained with a
bright blue dye, allowing the taste bud density to be easily
"Some people have up to 10 times the number of taste buds others
do. One hypothesis is the more you can taste, the quicker your
mouth signals your brain to stop eating and might be a factor in
your overall body composition," Dr. Garneau said.
Genetics of Taste is a thriving example of community-based
research. The research questions about taste and health were
selected by the public, and the study is now carried out by
dedicated volunteer citizen-scientists. Museum visitors are the
research participants, which will allow for an unprecedented sample
size of subjects, providing information from a wide range of ages
and backgrounds. Over the next few years, data will be collected,
analyzed, and submitted for publication in a scientific
If you are 18 years of age or older, you can actually
participate in our research. Just stop by the lab in Expedition
Health and ask a volunteer with a lab coat on to tell you more.
This visitor experience is free with Museum admission, and is
subject to the availability of our citizen-scientists working in
the lab that day.