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NIH Research Matters

September 8, 2006

Elusive Sour Taste Cells Revealed

Humans can taste many different compounds, but they fall into five basic groups: sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami (the taste of monosodium glutamate). The cells that detect sweet, bitter and umami have already been identified. Now, the same research group that pinpointed those has identified the long-sought mammalian taste cells that serve as our sour sensor.

lemons and limes

Sweet, bitter and umami tastes are detected by distinct receptor proteins, each found in independent populations of taste receptor cells (TRC) on the tongue. A group of researchers led by Dr. Nicholas Ryba at NIH's National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and Dr. Charles S. Zuker, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of California at San Diego, set out to identify the mammalian sour taste sensor (NIH's National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders also contributed funding to the study). Since these proteins must be found on the outside of TRCs, the researchers searched the mouse genome for proteins that spanned the outer membranes of these cells.

In the August 24, 2006 issue of Nature, the team reports their discovery of a protein called PKD2L1 that's found in a subset of TRCs distinct from those responsible for sweet, bitter and umami taste. The researchers genetically engineered mice with a toxin so that the TRCs producing PKD2L1 are killed. The mice without these TRCs didn't respond to sour stimuli, but their responses to other tastes remained.

When something tastes sour to you, you're essentially sensing how acidic it is. Acid sensing is important not only in the taste system, but for monitoring body fluids. For example, carbon dioxide levels can change the pH (a measure of acidity) of the blood and cerebrospinal fluid. The researchers thus looked to see whether PKD2L1 might be found in other cell types, and whether these cells could sense changes in acidity.

They found PKD2L1 in a type of nerve cell surrounding the central canal of the spinal cord. Further testing showed that these cells can send out signals in response to changes in pH. The researchers propose that these nerve cells may function as sensors of cerebrospinal pH. PKD2L1 thus may play a role in acid sensing in both types of cells.

This research shows that the unique TRCs producing PKD2L1 are the long-sought sour taste detection cells. Exactly how these cells detect sourness and what PKD2L1's role in the process might be are subjects for further research. In addition, the researchers are now searching for the final taste receptor cells, those for salty tastes.

— by Harrison Wein

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Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Assistant Editors: Vicki Contie, Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

NIH Research Matters is a weekly update of NIH research highlights from the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.

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This page last reviewed on December 4, 2012

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