The Mechanics Behind Our Sense of Taste

The way we taste food is with our taste cells that function on our tongue. Our taste cells have certain receptors that help new cells know where to go to replace old cells that have stopped working. Then our new cells will emerge where our old cells were originally.

There are different types of cells that control our taste senses and our tongue works with those cells. Dr. Hojoon Lee, a neuroscientist, conducted an experiment which tested how cells work in mice to see how cells knew where to go on the tongue. He found that his mouse had special molecules called semaphorins. These molecules help communicate with neurons to tell the taste cells where to land and helped the cells to connect correctly. The scientists discovered they could help mice, and likely people, have a better send of taste. "While the studies were all done in mice, there's no reason to think human taste cells would be too different," one of doctor Lee's colleagues Yuki Oka says.

Among the five senses, taste is probably the least known or examined. Lee and his colleagues so far have found semaphorin molecules only for sweet or bitter. They are also testing for sour, salty, and umami cells. "But there's probably far more than one molecule controlling the final hookup," Lee points out.

Even when the bitter or sweet taste cells had no semaphorins, the neurons still went to the proper taste receptor almost half the time. This means that there are other molecules that probably help the neurons find their way. After all, when it comes to tasting the difference between poisons and pie, you can never be too safe.