The Genetics of Taste Lab

Who We Are

The Genetics of Taste Lab is the first community scientist-driven human genetics lab in the country.

What we study: The role of your DNA in taste. The role of taste in flavor. In addition, how flavor drives food choices.

Watch in real life! Peek into our lab 364 days a year, we are located in the back of the award-winning exhibition, Expedition Health on the Museum’s 2nd floor.

Join us: Maybe watching isn't enough, which is why we want YOU to be a part of our research. The Lab is open for public participation in taste research from November through August annually. This research experience is free with Museum admission, and is subject to the availability of our community scientists working in the lab that day. We welcome anyone 8 years or older (with legal guardian present).

The Genetics of Taste Lab is funded in part by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (R25OD021909)

Genes and Grains (2018-2019)

Flavor is one of the key factors related to consumer acceptance of whole grain products. One major barrier to increased whole grain consumption is the individual consumer’s perception of taste. Some people feel that whole grain foods have a bitter or strong flavor. The purpose of this proposed research is to more fully understand why some wheats have a stronger or more bitter flavor, and why some are milder and how this interacts with an individual’s ability to taste bitter.

 

The purpose of our study is to explore several relationships wheat genetics and human genetics, including:

  • ·         Specific Aim 1: Determine if humans can detect difference between different wheat samples and if so, determine if which sensory components contribute to the differentiation
  • ·         Specific Aim 2: Determine if variation per strain is due to a number of variables and factors: e.g. age, genetic sex, variation in gene TAS2R4
  • ·         Specific Aim 3: Determine if variation affects preference for each strain of wheat

 

 

Background and Significance: Flavor is one of the key factors related to consumer acceptance of whole grain products. The Western Wheat Quality Lab, in conjunction with Colorado State University, has been studying the role that wheat genetics plays in conferring different flavors and aromas to wheat grain. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Genetics of Taste Lab is collaborating with these agriculture scientists to understand the interface of wheat and human genetics in the perception of whole grain wheat flavor.

 

Whole grains have higher fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants that promote healthier cardiovascular and digestive systems, as well as increase satiety and decrease the body’s glycemic response, particularly in individuals with Type II diabetes.  Increasing palatability of whole grain products can lead to increased inclusion of whole grains into foods that we eat every day. Americans consume than the recommended daily intake of dietary fiber, so increased whole grain consumption without substantial dietary interruptions would be greatly impactful on people’s health and the health of society in general.

 

Wheat is the leading cereal consumed in Colorado and Colorado is the 7th leading wheat producing state in America. In 2016, Colorado farmers planted over 2.35 million acres of wheat and produced 105.1 million bushels of wheat.

Savory and Sour Study (2017-2018)

“We want to connect our research to daily life, and taste is something we all do every day,” said Nicole Garneau, curator and principal investigator of the Genetics of Taste Lab at the Museum. “Surprisingly little is known about the way people experience different tastes in combination. This study is designed to help us understand how sour impacts the taste of umami and whether genetics plays a role.”

The Science of Sour Study (2016-2017)

The Science of Sour ran from November 2016 to August 2017. 

A Sweet-Tasting Study (2015-2016)

How do the bacteria in your mouth (called the oral microbiome) influence our ability to taste and our health?

A great deal of scientific and public interest has developed around the gut microbiome – think about the interest in pre- and probiotics for digestive health – but much less is known about the oral microbe. What we do know is that the ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria is important for health. When there is too much of a certain species of bacteria, S. noxia, in the mouth, your risk for health problems like obesity and periodontal disease may increase. Because S. noxia feeds off of sugars, we want to see if differences in S. noxia ratios impacts sweet taste. We will also be able to determine if families and friends share similarities in their S. noxia ratios compared to unrelated individuals. 

Fatty Acid Taste Study (2013-2015)

1000 Enrollments -FA Study

The Genetics of Taste Lab was host to the fatty acid taste study from November 2014 to August 2015. In that time we enrolled 1020 Museum guests, ages 8-90, as part of the crowdsourced data collection. The study was a true success in both citizen science and crowdsourcing, AND now that the data have been analyzed, we can share that it is a scientific success as well!Assuming humans can detect the taste of fatty acids, how does it happen?

Research suggests that humans can detect the taste of fatty acids, but how this occurs is not known. To look into this question, the Genetics of Taste Lab will open a new research study for public participation. Using an omega-6 essential fatty acid (linoleic acid), the Lab will examine both genetic and environmental factors that might contribute to the ability to taste this important nutrient.

 

Background

Scientists have long accepted that sweet, sour, salty and bitter are basic tastes. More recently, umami (savory) was added to the list. And now through the findings of our study as well as those of our collaborators, we can finally provide strong evidence that there is a sixth taste: fat, or as it is starting to be known in the land of taste, oleogustus.

There is a thirty year history towards proving that fat is the 6th taste, however the final nail in the coffin came this year when our collaborator, Dr. Richard Mattes of Purdue, and his team published their research "Oleogustus: The Unique Taste of Fat." This finally put fat taste on the map.  Now that we know people can detect the taste of fatty acids, we need to figure out how it happens and what it means for human health. That’s where the Genetics of Taste Lab’s work comes in. Using an omega-6 essential fatty acid (linoleic acid), the Lab examined both genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the ability to taste this important nutrient, and the role it has in obesity.

Results

The first published results of the study, No Difference in Perceived Intensity of Linoleic Acid in the Oral Cavity between Obese and Nonobese Individuals, appears in the October 2015 issue of the leading journal Chemical Senses, published by Oxford University Press (free open access!).

The study had dual purposes. The first was to determine whether people can, in fact, discern the presence of linoleic acid. In a survey of 735 subjects, ranging in age from 8 to 90, of white, black, Asian and Latino ethnicity, the answer was definitively yes, people can detect the taste — but to different degrees.

The second was if taste acuity plays a role in obesity. In answer to this question, the researchers found no link between %BF and ability to perceive the taste of the linoleic acid.  “We didn’t find that %BF would predict someone’s sensitivity to fat,” our partner and lead author, Robin Tucker-Falconer, RD PhD said. “Now we know we need to explore other areas, like genetics or dietary exposure, for those results.”  We are now in the final stages of the genetic analysis, with the goal of finding the gene responsible for fat taste- stay tuned!

The results also revealed an interesting pattern in sensitivity. Women were much better than men at discerning the taste, and young people 17 and under, especially girls, were better than older people. “This was one of the first studies to look at how kids experience fat taste,” Tucker-Falconer said.

Making History

What was unusual about the study — and what enabled it to include such a large and diverse set of subjects — was that it was conducted with the help of citizen scientist volunteers that crowdsourced over 1000 Museum guests as human subjects in the Genetics of Taste Laboratory housed within the Museum.  Our research partner, Tucker-Falconer adapted the research methods she had used as a graduate student at Purdue, where she tested about 100 participants over four years, to the museum setting, working with our team to design the study and to train the volunteers.

The proof is now I the pudding. “This was far and away the largest sampling that has been done,” said Mattes, a longtime researcher into the biology of taste.  “Working with the citizen- scientists is a wonderful scenario,” Mattes continued. “With their interest and willingness to be trained and their commitment, it’s just a perfect situation. It enables us to study large populations in an efficient way.”

This two-year study was led by Nicole Garneau PhD ([email protected]) and Richard Mattes PhD ([email protected]), and made possible by a partnership between the Health Science and Visitor Programs Departments at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the Nutrition Science Department at Purdue University.

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We love our citizen scientist alumni, and we are incredibly proud of where they take their science careers. This week, we are pleased to share insights from alumnus Michael A. Bagley, an optometric intern at Pacific University College of Optometry.

Michael takes our study on fatty acids to the next level in health in showing the very cool way in which these healthy fats do amazing things for our eyes.

Salmon? Yes, please!

Yo Pearl the Science Girl


Nutrition and dietary supplementation are a fast growing interest and industry in the United States. One family of nutrients gaining notoriety is the polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), like omega-3. Omega-3 PUFAs are considered essential to have in the diet because the body cannot make these nutrients on its own. These molecules are used as structural components in all cells and participate in the growth and function of various body systems including vision, heart, immunity, and the inflammation process.



Two important PUFAs for the eyes are Docosahexaenoic acid (DPA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). They have been implicated in the function of the retina, and health of the front surfaces of the eye and cornea. Age-Related Macular Degeneration is a leading cause of blindness in the United States. The Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and its follow up, AREDS2, explored the benefit of vitamin, mineral, and omega-3 supplementation effects on macular degeneration. They found that regular intake of their formulation helped slow down the progression of macular degeneration and reduced the risk of developing it in the future. It has now become the standard treatment for this incurable, progressive, and devastating disease.

Another very common condition is dry eye. Many of us have experienced dry, gritty, or uncomfortable feelings on the eye. Protecting the cornea from the dry air is a thin shield made of clear mucous, aqueous (water), and liquid fats/oil called the “tear film”. A study by Rahul Bhargava and his colleagues explored the effects of omega-3 supplementation on people who suffer from this feeling of dryness. They conducted their study in an area of India where the people have very little or no food sources containing this kind of fat. Their findings are very intriguing. The health of the cornea and quality of the protective tear film of their subjects increased dramatically after the supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids. Another trial conducted by Haleh Kangari found the same benefits can be gained right here in the U.S. We should be taking advantage of food sources we already have that contain omega 3, such as fish and dark, leafy green vegetables and fish/krill oil tablets.


Omega-6 fatty acids are another type of PUFAs that are essential to the body’s function and development. These are very common in our diet without even trying. Corn, nuts, and other grains are high in omega-6. It’s so prevalent than some researchers suggest lowering your intake because too much can actually damage cells through triggering unnecessary inflammation. In their article in Review of Optometry magazine, Drs. Paul Karpecki and Diana Shectman suggested a 1:1 ratio of omega-3 to 6. Achieving this ratio usually requires reducing corn and flour product intake while increasing fish and vegetables or taking supplements.


It’s truly amazing how the right nutrients can affect our bodies in dramatic ways. Many of us think of our eyes as separate entities. But they’re as much of a part of our health as a strong heart or a focused mind. Omega-3 PUFAs are gaining stronger support from optometrists, ophthalmologists, and other medical professionals as a part of a healthy diet. These essential nutrients help reduce the risk of macular degeneration in the future and can make eyes feel better right now! As always, ask your optometrist or other medical professional about any concerns you may have.

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Bitter Taste Study (2009-2013)

Pilot Study 2009-2012: The Genetics of Bitter Taste

The pilot study in the Genetics of Taste Lab focused on the gene TAS2R38, and how changes to this gene affect how humans expereince the taste of bitter. The study also worked to better understand the role of fungiform papillae on the tongue and if the number of fungiform papillae could be used as a metric for predicting sensitivity to the bitter tastant PROP. Towards this effort, the citizen scientists led by Research Coordinators Meghan Sloan and Tiffany Derr developed a new methodology called the Denver Papillae Protocol for determining FP density on the tongue. IN addition, we put forth eveidence to challenge the term "supertaster."

 

In the News

  • ColoradoBiz Magazine, Top 5 Announced! "Nicole Garneau, Taking taste to a new level." (01/2018)
  • ColoradoBiz Magazine. "GenXYZ Top 25 Young Professionals." (01/2018)
  • Maine Policy Review. "Cutting edge citizen science in the desert and in a museum." (12/2017)
  • Vail Daily. Driscoll, K. “Breckenridge Big Beers festival: Neuroscience explains why beer isn’t your best bet to knock down spicy foods.” (1/10/2018)
  • Denver Post (print). Frank, J. “This style of beer actually makes the sting of hot wings worse.” (1/10/2018)
  • The Know. Frank, J. “This style of beer actually makes the sting of hot wings worse.” (1/8/2018)
  • Telemundo Denver. “El que sabe, sabe. ¿Qué sabes de sabores?” (12/18/2017)
  • SoundCloud. Thode, KM. “Interview Podcast with Dr. Nicole Garneau.” (12/10/2017)
  • Fox31. “Savory and Sour Taste Study." (11/29/17)
  • The Peer Revue. Nuessle, W. “Tiffany Nuessle takes on taste.” (11/21/2017)
  • CBS4. Hillan, J. "Denver Museum Of Nature & Science Needs Taste Testers For Study.” (11/15/2017)
  • 5280 Magazine. Mickelsen, D. "Taste Tests." (11/2017)
  • Planete + (France). Scala, S. "Nos 5 Sens, LES MYSTÈRES DU GOÛT." (10/25/2017)
  • Telemundo Denver. “¿Quieres saber cómo funciona tu cuerpo?” (10/17/2017)
  • DIY Sci TV Show (Europe only), Season Two. (09/2017)
  • BrainScoop. Graslie, E. "The Human Biology Collection." 07/19/2017).
  • Denver Post. Carmen, D. "Everybody loses on in the war on science." (4/23/2017).
  • Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine. Johnson, G. "Ms. Understood: How to market beer to women." (04/2017)
  • Colorado State University. Jensen, B. "Taste of Success: Nicole Garneau puts beer on the map." (04/2017)
  • Met Media. Holt, R. "Nicole Garneau studies age-old pairings brought from kitchen to lab." (3/11/2017)
  • CraftBeer.com. Kellogg, B. "8 Women in Craft Beer Who are Making a Mark Right Now." (3/7/2017)
  • Denver Post. Worthington, D. "'Beer me' in the name of science: museum brings back popular crowdtasting study." (2/23/17)
  • TED Radio Hour. Raz, G. "Nicole Garneau: Are There More Than Five Basic Tastes." (1/2017)
  • How to market beer to women. Johnson, G. Publisher, Women Enjoying Beer. (09/2016)
  • Denver Post. Frank, J. "The Science Behind Why You Love (or Hate) Certain Beers, If At All." (3/2016) 
  • Colorado Matters, Colorado Public Radio. Maddox, K. “Beer, Food And ... Genetics? It's On Tap At The Museum Of Nature And Science.” (3/2016)
  • We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians, and Scientists Are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time. Platoni, K. Publisher, Basic Books. 2015.
  • Beer Pairing: The Essential Guide from the Pairing Pros. Herz & Conley. Publisher, Voyageur Press. 2015.
  • Colorado Matters, Colorado Public Radio. Dukakis, A. "Is Bacteria The Reason For Your Sweet Tooth?" (11/2015)
  • KUNC. Ogburn, S. "Is Fat The Sixth Taste? Denver Museum Goers Help Scientists With Mystery." (03/2015)
  • CBS4. Gionet, A. "Girls & Science Aims To Change Thinking About Careers." (02/2015)
  • Colorado Public Radio.  Denerstein, B.  “How accurate is that 'Alien?' Denver scientists head to the movies.” (7/2014)
  • IM'UNIQUE. Oswego Productions. “A healthy world where all people are inspired, united and unique.” (6/2014)
  • Cuisine of Loneliness. Cole, C.A. “The Blue Tongue Project: Finding Inspiration at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science”(6/2014)
  • Hispanic Business. “Denver Museum of Nature & Science Scientist Challenges Supertaster Phenomenon,” (6/2014)  
  • Medical News Today. “Researchers challenge scientific theory with the help of citizen scientists.” (5/2014)
  • Daily Mail Online (UK). Macrae, F.  “Bumpy tongue? It doesn't make you a top taster: How whether we like spicy or bitter foods is actually determined by our genes.” (5/2014)
  • BioCompare. “Citizens Help Researchers to Challenge Scientific Theory.”  (5/2014)
  • Science Daily. “Supertasters do not have particularly high density of taste buds on tongue, crowdsourcing shows.  (5/2014)
  • redOrbit. Smith, B. “Taste Receptor Gene Determines How Well We Sense Food.” (5/14)
  • The Independent. Connor, S. “Taste has nothing to do with the bumpiness of your tongue, say scientists.” (5/2014)

*please note, the article incorrectly identifies Museum guests that participated in the research study as "citizen scientists." This term has a very specific meaning representing volunteers that are trained to collect, prepare and process, and help analyze data. We have requested a correction with the author, but regretfully were not granted it. Therefore additional news outlets that indexed this story are not captured here.

  • French Tribune. Totolos, B. “Sensory Papillae’s Density not Linked with Ability to Taste Certain Kind of Bitter Components.” (5/2014)
  • MedicalPress. “Citizens help researchers to challenge scientific theory.” (5/2014)
  • MileHighTEDx. Faktorow, S. “Speaking at [email protected]: An Insider’s Perspective.” (5/2014)
  • SciStarter.com. Murphy-Niedziela, M. & Bui L. “The Genetics of Taste: A Sixth Taste?” (2/2014)
  • MEDILLreports. Actman, J. “Link between genes and a taste for fatty acids.” (2/2014)
  • StudentScience. Brookshire, B. “Using citizen science to find a new taste.” (12/2013)
  • NewsSentinel. Slaby, M.J. “Purdue professor works to determine if fat is 6th taste sense.” (11/2013)
  • Westword. Hemmert, N. “Denver Museum of Nature and Science on the hunt for a sixth taste sense.” (11/2013)
  • 9NEWS. Dyer, K. “Science on tap: the science behind beer.” (7/2013)
  • 5280 Online.  Hausheer, J. “Science on Tap: Denver Beer Co. Serves a Brew Made from the Wilds of City Park. Really.” (7/2013)
  • Conoce Colorado.  Guzmán, J. “Visita al museo de Ciencias Naturales de Denver.” (7/2013)
  • Northglenn-Thornton Sentinel. “DMNS role in healthcare showcased in national report.” (7/2013)
  • Westword. Shikes, J. “The DMNS and Denver Beer Co conduct a wild brewing experiment with City Park yeast.” (6/2013)
  • Microbes Rule! Martin, M. “ASMCUE, Citizen Science, and a Surprise!” (5/2013)
  • Total Health Blog. Eytan, T. “Participation in Science, too – at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.” (2/2012)
  • 5280 Magazine. Sukin, G. “Citizen Scientist.” (1/2013)
  • Denver Post. Davidson, J. “A Night in Pompeii benefits Denver Museum of Nature & Science.” (11/2012)
  • Denver Post, YourHub. Wilbanks, C. “Expedition Health at Denver Museum of Nature and Science.”  (6/2012)
  • University of Colorado, Newsroom. “Our Own Science Guy.” (1/2012)
  • Colorado Bioscience Institute. (12/2012)
  • Denver Business Journal. “Congratulations to our 2012 Forty under 40 Nominees.” February 10-16, 2012. A24.
  • American Society for Microbiology Microbe Magazine. “International Affairs: Millis-Colwell Exchange Program.” 11(6):505. 2011.
  • Denver Westword Blogs. Klosowski, T. “We talk with the DMNS Curator of Health Sciences about Gattaca.” (4/2011).
  • PBS Newshour Online. Jacobson, R. “The Bitter Taste of Genetics.” (12/2010)
  • Around the Oval. Etter, B. “A Bitter Taste in the Mouth.” Winter 2010: 6.
  • Rocky Mountain PBS. “Genetics of Taste.” Aired numerous times 2010-present.
  • Labconco Newsletter. Williams, K. “A New Paramount in the Rockies, Customer Spot Light.” April 2010.
  • Member Magazine.  Holtman, L. “Meet Our Newest Curator.” February/March 2010: 7.


Join Our Volunteer Research Team

Join our Research Team!

Our community lab consists of volunteers (called community scientists) as well as staff. The Lab’s scientific team, overseen by Dr. Nicole Garneau, works closely with these dedicated volunteers to execute scientific research. It is a unique opportunity for people without a background in science, or someone without access to resources to contribute to real science and receive a meaningful science-based experience.

Become a Community Scientist

Community scientists support the Genetics of Taste Lab by volunteering on regularly scheduled shifts, once a week, to collect data from Museum guests during enrollments, process and prepare DNA samples, sequence DNA and co-author scientific manuscripts. 

If you are age 16 or older, click here to apply to be a community scientist today!

 

Comunidad Student Scientists (CSS) Program 2018-2019

The Comunidad Student Scientist (CSS) program is a volunteer program in the Genetics of Taste Lab.

Our goal is to support diverse high school students (16 years or older) interested in exploring science related careers. We offer access to be a part of real scientific research. We provide support, both inside and outside the lab, to empower, build resilience, and serve as a safe space to build confidence to reach their full potential. 

If you want be a Comunidad Student Scientist (CSS), click here.

For more information, please contact [email protected]

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