Gustatory system

Gustatory system

The gustatory system is the sensory system for the sense of taste.


Humans require a way to distinguish between safe and dangerous foods. Bitter and sour foods we find unpleasant, while salty, sweet, and meaty tasting foods generally provide a pleasurable sensation. The five specific tastes received by gustatory receptors are salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami, which means “savory” or “meaty” in Japanese.

According to Lindemann, both salt and sour taste mechanisms detect, in different ways, the presence of sodium chloride in the mouth. The detection of salt is important to many organisms, but specifically mammals, as it serves a critical role in ion and water homeostasis in the body. It is specifically needed in the mammalian kidney as an osmotically-active compound which facilitates passive re-uptake of water into the blood. Because of this, salt elicits a pleasant response in most humans.

Sour taste can be mildly pleasant in small quantities, as it is linked to the salt flavour, but in larger quantities it becomes more and more unpleasant to taste. This is because the sour taste can signal over-ripe fruit, rotten meat, and other spoiled foods, which can be dangerous to the body because of bacteria which grow in such mediums. As well, sour taste signals acids (H+ ions), which can cause serious tissue damage.

The bitter taste is almost completely unpleasant to humans. This is because many nitrogenous organic molecules which have a pharmacological effect on humans taste bitter. These include caffeine, nicotine, and strychnine, which compose the stimulant in coffee, addictive agent in cigarettes, and active compound in many pesticides, respectively. It appears that some psychological process allows humans to overcome their innate aversion to bitter taste, as caffeinated drinks are widely consumed and enjoyed around the world. It is also interesting to note that many common medicines have a bitter taste if chewed; the gustatory system apparently interprets these compounds as poisons. In this manner, the unpleasant reaction to the bitter taste is a last-line warning system before the compound is ingested and can do damage.

Sweet taste signals the presence of carbohydrates in solution. Since carbohydrates have a very high calorie count (saccharides have many bonds, therefore much energy), they are desirable to the human body, which has evolved to seek out the highest calorie intake foods, as the human body in the distant past has never known when its next meal will occur. They are used as direct energy (sugars) and storage of energy (glycogen). However, there are many non-carbohydrate molecules that trigger a sweet response, leading to the development of many artificial sweeteners, including saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame. It is still unclear how these substances activate the sweet receptors and what evolutionary significance this has.

The umami taste, which signals the presence of the amino acid L-glutamate, triggers a pleasurable response and thus encourages the intake of peptides and proteins. The amino acids in proteins are used in the body to build muscles and organs, transport molecules (hemoglobin), antibodies, and the organic catalysts known as enzymes. These are all critical molecules, and as such it is important to have a steady supply of amino acids, hence the pleasurable response to their presence in the mouth.


In the human body a stimulus refers to a form of energy which elicits a physiological or psychological action or response. Sensory receptors are the structures in the body which change the stimulus from one form of energy to another. This can mean changing the presence of a chemical, sound wave, source of heat, or touch to the skin into an electrical action potential which can be understood by the brain, the body’s control center. Sensory receptors are modified ends of sensory neurons; modified to deal with specific types of stimulus, thus there are many different types of sensory receptors in the body. The neuron is the primary component of the nervous system, which transmits messages from sensory receptors all over the body.

Taste as a form of Chemoreception

Taste is a form of chemoreception which occurs in specialized receptors in the mouth. These receptors are known as taste cells, and they are contained in bundles called taste buds, which are contained in raised areas known as that are found across the tongue. To date, there are five different types of taste receptors known: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Each receptor has a different manner of sensory transduction: that is, detecting the presence of a certain compound and starting an action potential which ultimately alerts the brain. It is a matter of debate whether each taste cell is tuned to one specific tastant or to several; Smith and Margolskee claim that “gustatory neurons typically respond to more than one kind of stimulus, [a] lthough each neuron responds most strongly to one tastant” (35). Researchers believe that the brain interprets complex tastes by examining patterns from a large set of neuron responses. This enables the body to make “keep or spit out” decisions when there is more that one tastant present. “No single neuron type alone is capable of discriminating among stimuli or different qualities, because a given cell can respond the same way to disparate stimuli” (39). As well, serotonin is thought to act as an intermediary hormone which communicates with taste cells within a taste bud, mediating the signals being sent to the brain. With that in mind, specific types of taste receptors will now be discussed. Receptor molecules are found on the apical (on top) microvilli of the taste cells.


Arguably the simplest receptor found in the mouth is the salt (NaCl) receptor. An ion channel in the taste cell wall allows Na+ ions to enter the cell. This on its own depolarizes the cell, and opens voltage-regulated Ca2+ gates, flooding the cell with ions and leading to neurotransmitter release. This sodium channel is known as ENaC and is composed of three subunits. ENaC can be blocked by the drug amiloride in many mammals, especially rats. The sensitivity of the salt taste to amiloride in humans, however, is much less pronounced, leading to conjecture that there may be additional receptor proteins besides ENaC that may not have been discovered yet.


Sour taste signals the presence of acidic compounds (H+ ions in solution). There are three different receptor proteins at work in sour taste. The first is a simple ion channel which allows hydrogen ions to flow directly into the cell. The protein for this is EnAC, the same protein involved in the distinction of salt taste (this implies a relationship between salt and sour receptors and could explain why salty taste is reduced when a sour taste is present). There are also H+ gated channels present. The first is a K+ channel, which ordinarily allows K+ ions to escape from the cell. H+ ions block these, trapping the potassium ions inside the cell (this receptor is classified as MDEG1 of the EnAC/Deg Family). A third protein opens to Na+ ions when a hydrogen ion attaches to it, allowing the sodium ions to flow down the concentration gradient into the cell. The influx of ions leads to the opening of a voltage regulated Ca2+ gate. These receptors work together and lead to depolarization of the cell and neurotransmitter release.


There are many different classes of bitter compounds which can be chemically very different. It is interesting that the human body has evolved a very sophisticated sense for bitter substances: we can distinguish between the many radically different compounds which produce a generally “bitter” response. This may be because the sense of bitter taste is so important to survival, as ingesting a bitter compound may lead to injury or death. Bitter compounds act through structures in the taste cell walls called G-protein coupled receptors (GPCR’s). Recently, a new group of GPCR’s was discovered, known as the T2R’s, which it is thought respond to only bitter stimuli. When the bitter compound activates the GPCR, it in turn releases gustducin, the G-protein it was coupled to. Gustducin is made of three subunits. When it is activated by the GPCR, its subunits break apart and activate phosphodiesterase, a nearby enzyme, which in turn converts a precursor within the cell into a secondary messenger, which closes potassium ion channels. As well, this secondary messenger can stimulate the endoplasmic reticulum to release Ca2+, which contributes to depolarization. This leads to a build-up of potassium ions in the cell, depolarization, and neurotransmitter release. It is also possible for some bitter tastants to interact directly with the G-protein, because of a structural similarity to the relevant GPCR.


Like bitter tastes, sweet taste transduction involves GPCR’s. The specific mechanism depends on the specific molecule. “Natural” sweeteners such as saccharides activate the GPCR, which releases gustducin. The gustducin then activates the molecule adenylate cyclase, which is already inside the cell. This molecule increases concentration of the molecule cAMP, or adenosine 3', 5'-cyclic monophosphate. This protein will either directly or indirectly close potassium ion channels, leading to depolarization and neurotransmitter release. Synthetic sweeteners such as saccharin activate different GPCR’s, initiating a similar process of protein transitions, starting with the protein Kinase A(PKA), which ultimately leads to the blocking of potassium ion channels.

Umami (Savory)

It is thought that umami receptors act much the same way as bitter and sweet receptors (they involve GPCR’s), but not much is known about their specific function. It is thought that the amino acid L-glutamate bonds to a type of GPCR known as a metabotropic glutamate receptor (mGluR4). This causes the G-protein complex to activate a secondary receptor, which ultimately leads to neurotransmitter release. The intermediate steps are not known.

Transmission to Brain

In humans, the sense of taste is conveyed via three of the twelve cranial nerves. The facial nerve (VII) carries taste sensations from the anterior two thirds of the tongue, the glossopharyngeal nerve (IX) carries taste sensations from the posterior one third of the tongue while a branch of the vagus nerve (X) carries some taste sensations from the back of the oral cavity.


* Bradbury, 2004. Taste Perception: Cracking the Code. Article read on April 21, 2006.

* Smith, David; Margolskee, Robert. 2001. Making Sense of Taste. Scientific American pp. 32-39; March 2001.

* Gleason, Michael. 2004. Chemoreception. Article read on April 21, 2006.

* Watson, Flora. 2004. Tarsal Taste Receptors of Flies. Article read on April 21, 2006.

* Scholey, J.M., et al. 2004. Biochemical Society Transactions. Biochemical Society. pp. 682-684.

* Ward, Samuel. 1973. Chemotaxis by the Nematode Caenorhabditis elegans: Identification of Attractants and Analysis of the Response by Use of Mutants. PNAS Vol. 70, No. 3, pp. 817-821; March 1973.

* Jacob, Tim. 2003. The Physiology of Taste. Article read on April 21, 2006.

* Lindemann, Bernd. 2001. Nature Vol. 413, pp. 219-225; September, 2001.

* Di Giuseppe, Maurice et al. 2003. Biology 12. Nelson. Toronto. pp. 438.

* Boeree, George. 2003. General Psychology: The Neuron. Article read on April 22, 2006.

* Anonymous1. What is an action potential? Article read on April 22, 2006.

* Koehler, Kenneth. 1996. The Action Potential. Article read April 22, 2006.

* Anonymous2. 2006. Unit 10 - Neuronal Synapse. Article read April 22, 2006.

* Bowen, R. 2003. Physiology of Taste. Article read on April 22, 2006.

* Purves, Dale et al. 2001. Neuroscience. Second Edition. Sinauer Associates Inc. Sunderland, MA.

* Sugimoto, K. et al. 2002. Pure and Applied Chemistry. Vol. 74. No. 7. IUPAC. pp. 1148.

* Kalumuck, Karen. 2006. The Myth of the Tongue Map. Article read on April 23, 2006.

* Bartoshuk, Linda. 1994. A Taste Illusion: Taste Sensation Localized by Touch. Article read on April 23, 2006.

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