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Open Access Review

Heritable differences in chemosensory ability among humans

Richard D Newcomb123, Mary B Xia4 and Danielle R Reed4*

Author Affiliations

1 The New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research Institute Limited, Auckland, New Zealand

2 School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

3 The Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Auckland, New Zealand

4 Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, PA, 19014, USA

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Flavour 2012, 1:9  doi:10.1186/2044-7248-1-9

Published: 16 May 2012

Abstract

The combined senses of taste, smell and the common chemical sense merge to form what we call ‘flavor.’ People show marked differences in their ability to detect many flavors, and in this paper, we review the role of genetics underlying these differences in perception. Most of the genes identified to date encode receptors responsible for detecting tastes or odorants. We list these genes and describe their characteristics, beginning with the best-studied case, that of differences in phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) detection, encoded by variants of the bitter taste receptor gene TAS2R38. We then outline examples of genes involved in differences in sweet and umami taste, and discuss what is known about other taste qualities, including sour and salty, fat (termed pinguis), calcium, and the ‘burn’ of peppers. Although the repertoire of receptors involved in taste perception is relatively small, with 25 bitter and only a few sweet and umami receptors, the number of odorant receptors is much larger, with about 400 functional receptors and another 600 potential odorant receptors predicted to be non-functional. Despite this, to date, there are only a few cases of odorant receptor variants that encode differences in the perception of odors: receptors for androstenone (musky), isovaleric acid (cheesy), cis-3-hexen-1-ol (grassy), and the urinary metabolites of asparagus. A genome-wide study also implicates genes other than olfactory receptors for some individual differences in perception. Although there are only a small number of examples reported to date, there may be many more genetic variants in odor and taste genes yet to be discovered.

Keywords:
Flavor; Genetics; Evolution; Taste; Odor; Receptor; Polymorphism