Category Archives: Science Content

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.

Quality Control can be a Killer!

scared bacteriaResearch by a team of Penn State scientists has found an important extra step in protein synthesis that bacteria use to assure quality control. The extra step, called “trans-translation” keeps the protein manufacturing process in bacteria moving along smoothly. However, since the trans-translational step is NOT found in plant or animal cells, this step opens the door to a whole new type of antibiotic. The research team, led by Kenneth Keiler, tested more than 600,000 small molecules and found 46 that disrupt the trans-translation process. One promising candidate, called KKL-35, has proven especially effective. Initial testing against bacteria that cause food poisoning, anthrax, and tuberculosis were very promising.  What about antibiotic resistance? The team found no mutant strains of the bacteria they tested that were resistant to KKL-35. Promising indeed! Perhaps a new generation of antibiotics is on the way!

That would be good news. The increasing prominence of “superbugs” that are resistant to many antibiotics has health care workers worried. John Rex of the pharmaceutical company AstraZenica pointed out that, while we let research on new antibiotics lag, bacteria were mutating to develop resistance to existing drugs. He noted new antibiotics are hard to discover and develop, and that users expect them to be low-cost. However, this wouldn’t allow companies to cover the development cost of the drug, much less fund research for the next generation of antibiotics.

A 2009 Time magazine article cited the lack of research monies available for drug development: “New antibiotics are desperately needed, but the amount of money being spent on the research and development of these drugs is woefully inadequate.” With tight federal budgets and sequestration cutting the work of federally-funded researchers, new antibiotic development is caught between a time-crunch and a budget crisis. To speed up the development, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services awarded $40 million to pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline to develop “medications to combat antibiotic resistance and biological agents that terrorists might use” with a promise of more money to come. Legislators and policy makers also are reviewing procedures for drug review and testing to find ways to speed up the process while assuring product safety.

Hopefully, with additional grants and funding, the work of researchers like the Keiler team at Penn State will be supported, and their findings will move forward through a streamlined development process. Watch out bacteria…we are on the lookout for your weaknesses and are ready to exploit them!

Learn more about protein synthesis, bacteria, and Immunity from the Archive:

Get Your Science Delivered to Your Doorstep
man holding boxes

Image courtesy of stockimages at

When I was a child, we had milk delivered to our door each day. Bottles of milk (yes, glass bottles!) appeared each morning in the insulated metal box on our porch, and any empties we’d left the day before disappeared. If you’ve ever waffled between going out in the cold rain to get milk or just drinking your coffee black or eating your cereal dry, you can appreciate how nice home delivery can be.

 Whether you want your science deliveries to your email, Facebook page, Twitter feed, or other social media, you can get your order served up right to your computer. Whether you like to read original research articles or prefer a summary news release, you can get info on life sciences, chemistry, astronomy, agriculture, engineering…well, you get the idea! Here is a list of 6 places where you can get updates on current science research. And don’t forget that the Archive includes press releases and related resources (podcasts, lessons, etc.) on research in physiology, medicine, developmental biology, anatomy, and other fields.

6 Places to Find Science Updates

  1. ScienceNews – Want to keep up with what’s hot in science? Receive daily e-mail alerts on a variety of science topics from the magazine.
  2. Biomedical Beat – Do you like great science images? NIGMS offers a monthly digest of research news and pictures.
  3. NASA Science – Interested in Space Science? Get the latest news in English or Spanish delivered to your inbox from
  4. Inside Science News Service – Like to keep up with research in all of the STEM discipline? Get the latest in science, engineering, and mathematics research news via e-mail.
  5. Science Is Awesome – Are you a fan of science? Check out this Facebook page dedicated to “bringing the amazing world of science straight to your newsfeed.”
  6. ScienceChannel  – Are you on twitter? Receive up-to-the minute science news updates.

Where do you get your science content? Share your favorites below.