Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Senses Week Bitter Truth
15 April 2015

Bitter Truth

For some people dark chocolate or coffee are just too bitter to stomach. For others they're heavenly. While culinary experiences throughout life certainly shape food preferences, the main reason for these stark differences may lie in our genetic make-up. This is because the shape and density of bitter taste buds called fungiform papillae (the rough patch in this microscope image of a rat's tongue) varies enormously between individuals. Having greater quantities of these sensors will exaggerate the characteristic bitterness of coffee and make it unbearably strong. Scientists now know that a minute difference in a single gene (called gustin) determines how many of these bitter buds coat our tongues. Fungiform papillae also pick up sweet, sour and spicy flavours so an aversion to dessert or curry for example, may have similar genetic foundations.

Written by Jan Piotrowski

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