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Taste buds engage in cross-talk.

Taste buds engage in cross-talk

A marriage of tiny electrodes and giant taste buds has given a new flavor to theories about taste. Researchers working with mud puppies -- a variety of salamander with large taste buds -- have made detailed physiological recordings from individual, taste-sensitive nerve cells. The findings indicate taste receptors are not simply passive recorders of chemical reactions in the mouth. Rather, these cells communicate with each other in complex ways, even within a single taste bud, before sending their sensory messages to the brain.

Like flavor-sensitive microprocessors, the specialized nerve clusters "make decisions" about what they are experiencing, says Stephen D. ROper of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Moreover, the classical view that taste buds come in only four basic varieties -- those that detect salt, sour, bitter and sweet -- appears oversimplified, he says. Although these tastes do represent the four basic elements from which all flavors get built, new evidence indicates that individual taste buds, each containing about 40 taste-sensitive cells, can sense and process various combinations of all these components.

Sweetness receptors remain the trickiest to characterize, Roper says, largely because of difficulties in isolating and culturing them. Bitterness receptors have been extensively studied, in part because of their unparalleled ability to detect poiisonous substances. Almost all poisons trigger bitter sensations in the mouth -- a dead give-away of danger that has inspired attempts by both scientists and assasins to develop non-bitter poisons against rats and kings, Roper points out.

Roper says ongoing research into the details of flavor reception should ultimately prove helpful to people who suffer from dysgeusia -- a chronic taste-reception abnormality that can literally leave its sufferers with a bad taste in their mouths. In addition, studies of taste buds' remarkably high turnover rates may provide new insights into nerve-cell development and regeneration. Beyond these wholesome benefits of research, he adds, the flavor industry--and epicures everywhere--stand to benefit from knowledge about the chemistry of taste enhancement.
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Author:Weiss, Rick
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 11, 1989
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