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20.11: Tastes

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    Detecting a taste (gustation) is fairly similar to detecting an odor (olfaction), given that both taste and smell rely on chemical receptors being stimulated by certain molecules. The primary organ of taste is the taste bud. A taste bud is a cluster of gustatory receptors (taste cells) that are located within the bumps on the tongue called papillae (singular: papilla) (illustrated in Figure 1). There are several structurally distinct papillae. Filiform papillae, which are located across the tongue, are tactile, providing friction that helps the tongue move substances, and contain no taste cells. In contrast, fungiform papillae, which are located mainly on the anterior two-thirds of the tongue, each contain one to eight taste buds and also have receptors for pressure and temperature. The large circumvallate papillae contain up to 100 taste buds and form a V near the posterior margin of the tongue.

    An illustration shows small, filiform papillae scattered across the front two thirds of the tongue. Larger circumvallate papillae form an inverted V at the back of the tongue. Medium-sized fungiform papillae are shown scattered across the back two thirds of the tongue. Foliate papillae form ridges on the back edges of the tongue. A micrograph shows a cross-section of a tongue in which the foliate papillae can be seen as square protrusions about 200 microns across and deep.
    Figure 1. (a) Foliate, circumvallate, and fungiform papillae are located on different regions of the tongue. (b) Foliate papillae are prominent protrusions on this light micrograph. (credit a: modification of work by NCI; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

    In addition to those two types of chemically and mechanically sensitive papillae are foliate papillae—leaf-like papillae located in parallel folds along the edges and toward the back of the tongue, as seen in the Figure 1 micrograph. Foliate papillae contain about 1,300 taste buds within their folds. Finally, there are circumvallate papillae, which are wall-like papillae in the shape of an inverted “V” at the back of the tongue. Each of these papillae is surrounded by a groove and contains about 250 taste buds.

    A taste bud is shaped like a garlic bulb, and is embedded in the epidermis of the tongue. Together, the two types of cells that make up the taste bud, taste cells and supporting cells, resemble cloves. Hair-like microvilli extend from the tips of the taste cells, into a taste pore on the surface of the tongue. Nerve endings extend into the bottom of the taste bud from the dermis.
    Figure 2. Pores in the tongue allow tastants to enter taste pores in the tongue. (credit: modification of work by Vincenzo Rizzo)

    Each taste bud’s taste cells are replaced every 10 to 14 days. These are elongated cells with hair-like processes called microvilli at the tips that extend into the taste bud pore (illustrate in Figure 2). Food molecules (tastants) are dissolved in saliva, and they bind with and stimulate the receptors on the microvilli. The receptors for tastants are located across the outer portion and front of the tongue, outside of the middle area where the filiform papillae are most prominent.

    In humans, there are five primary tastes, and each taste has only one corresponding type of receptor. Thus, like olfaction, each receptor is specific to its stimulus (tastant). Transduction of the five tastes happens through different mechanisms that reflect the molecular composition of the tastant. A salty tastant (containing NaCl) provides the sodium ions (Na+) that enter the taste neurons and excite them directly. Sour tastants are acids and belong to the thermoreceptor protein family. Binding of an acid or other sour-tasting molecule triggers a change in the ion channel and these increase hydrogen ion (H+) concentrations in the taste neurons, thus depolarizing them. Sweet, bitter, and umami tastants require a G-protein coupled receptor. These tastants bind to their respective receptors, thereby exciting the specialized neurons associated with them.

    Both tasting abilities and sense of smell change with age. In humans, the senses decline dramatically by age 50 and continue to decline. A child may find a food to be too spicy, whereas an elderly person may find the same food to be bland and unappetizing.

    View this animation that shows how the sense of taste works.

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