Category Archives: Science Research

Taste and Supertasters

tongue_squareHow many times have you been asked to “map” your tongue? Did you (or your students) use solutions and cotton swabs to generate that classic map of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and, now, savory (umami)? We know now that the map is artificial. But what happens when the molecules found in food hit the taste buds?

Research from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that when you eat something sweet, bitter or savory (umami), your taste buds release ATP as a neurotransmitter to trigger neurons to carry the message to the brain’s taste centers. However, when you eat something sour or salty the signal to the brain seems to work by a different biological mechanism. This new research helps us trace the path from food to taste bud to receptor to transmitter release to nerve impulse to brain.  So…in my unending quest to have yet another reason to eat chocolate, I wonder…if we eat sweet foods, does the ATP release significantly counterbalance the intake of calories? (OK, that one is just wishful thinking!).

Lovelace found that people vary in the number of taste buds per square millimeter of tongue surface and in their taste sensitivity. In one study, she found that people who cook for a living (e.g., chefs) had greater taste sensitivity than did people in other professions. Those with proportionately more taste buds have been labeled “supertasters.” Want to know where you stand on the taste bud density issue? A drop of blue food coloring on your tongue will let you see your taste buds, should you be into quantification! Hmm…do supertasters use up significantly different amounts of ATP when eating sweet, bitter, or savory foods compared to normal tasters? Something to think about. Or perhaps something just to savor the next time you pop a Hershey kiss.

Want to try out some taste and other sensory activities in your classroom? Check out the LifeSciTRC resource Welcome to Your Senses.




Marsha Matyas, PhD is a biologist, educator, and science education researcher. For nearly 30 years, she has worked at scientific professional associations (AAAS and now APS) to promote excellence in science education at all levels and to increase diversity within the scientific community. Her research focuses on factors that promote science career interest and success, especially among women and underrepresented minorities. She directs the Education Office and programs at APS, which span from pre-Kindergarten to professional development and continuing education for Ph.D. and M.D. scientists. In her free time, Marsha enjoys traveling with her family and scrapbooking.

Researchers Helping You

By Rhoda Baer (Photographer) , via Wikimedia Commons

Do you or a family member have a disease? An injury? A lifelong condition? Chances are that somewhere in the world, a team of dedicated medical researcher is working hard to find ways to treat you and improve your health. Often, this requires looking at your illness or injury in a new way. In the Archive, you can find many examples of how medical researchers are finding innovative ways to make your life better, from an improved tool for monitoring glucose levels in diabetic patients to finding a new use for an ancient material.

How would you like to have to stab your finger five or six times a day, every day of your life, in order to get a drop of your own blood? People with diabetes do that to check their glucose levels … and it’s no fun. But now scientists are developing other, less painful, tools for patients. One of them is a glucose monitoring “tattoo”. You can read more about it here: “Honey, I Shrunk the Sensor

People getting chemotherapy for cancer know only too well that the powerful drugs they take to kill the cancer also attack the healthy cells in their bodies. Killing off healthy cells can cause a whole range of bad side effects from hair loss to heart damage.  Many scientists are working hard to create chemo drugs that target only the cancer cells. “Bullseye – Making Drugs Hit Their Targets” explains one researcher’s approach. Another story, “The Medicine of the Future – Controlled-Release Systems” looks at a different avenue to delivering medicine only where it’s needed.

Since 3000 BCE, silk has been woven to create a range of luxurious items from robes to tapestries. But did you know that silk can also have modern medical applications? From suturing, drug storage, tissue scaffolds, artificial tendons, and more, these two articles describe novel uses of this ancient material:  “Silk of the Future” and “Smooth as Silk.”

Resources throughout the Archive can introduce you to some of the wonders of modern research. What are your favorites?