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Sour Taste Sensors Identified

The cells and receptors responsible for sour taste have been identified by Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher Charles S. Zuker and Nicholas J.P. Ryba //at the National Institutes of Health after seven years of working together to identify the cells, receptors and signaling mechanisms for three of the five tastes humans can sense -- sweet, bitter, and umami. The sour taste sensors have been found to be the primary gateway in all mammals for the detection of spoiled and unripe food sources. The receptor is found in a subpopulation of taste receptor cells of the tongue that do not function in sweet, bitter, or umami (the taste of monosodium glutamate) taste, the researchers report in the August 24, 2006, issue of the journal Nature.

This finding is "very satisfying," said Zuker, "because it seals the case that we had built before with sweet, bitter, and umami, showing that each taste is mediated by fully dedicated sensors." A contrasting view held that individual tongue cells detect more than one taste modality, with the quality of the taste being encoded in a complicated pattern of nerve signals sent to the brain.

The hunt for the sour receptor began with a search of DNA and protein sequence databases. Angela Huang, a graduate student in Zuker's lab at the University of California, San Diego, and the lead author of the paper, screened the mouse genome for all of the genes encoding proteins that have transmembrane domains -- sections of the protein that allow the protein to be located in cell membranes.

"That screen narrowed the list significantly, from 30,000 to about 10,000," Huang said. She then used what Zuker calls "a stroke of ingenuity" to reduce the list further. Proteins that could detect sour compounds are likely to be found only in small numbers of tissues, including taste cells in the tongue. Huang therefore eliminated from the list all those proteins that are expressed in many different tissues. "That got it do
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