Fruit flies can taste calcium: Does that mean humans can? – Health

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Searching for the sixth sense of taste

“Scientists identify a sixth taste sense.” It’s a claim that has made headlines several times over the last few years — first for fat, then for starch and even for water.  Now the new candidate for the sixth taste is calcium, after scientists identified the first calcium taste receptors in fruit flies.

Researchers at the University of California studied fruit fly behaviour and discovered the flies could taste toxic levels of calcium and didn’t like it. Then they used genetics to show that the calcium taste sense is hardwired into the fruit fly brain.

University of California professor Craig Montell believes humans might share the fruit fly’s taste sensor for calcium. (UC Santa Barbara)

And because fruit flies and humans share the other main taste senses — sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savoury (called “umami”) — the study’s lead author, Craig Montell, thinks there’s a good chance that humans also have specific calcium taste receptors.

“I would say there is very good reason that, given that all the other tastes have been well conserved between flies and humans, that there probably is,” said Montell.

But the science of taste is surprisingly complicated. Even the idea that there might be additional taste receptors is controversial. As far back as Aristotle’s time, scientists have been puzzling over the question.

“Since people have been doing scientific research on taste there’s been this disagreement over whether there are these fundamental or basic tastes,” said neurobiologist Gary Beauchamp, who is an expert in the science of taste and has been researching the question for years at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

Taste scientist Gary Beauchamp, from the Monell Chemical Senses Centre, believes all the human taste senses have been identified. (Monell Chemical Sciences Center)

The controversy revolves around the definition of “taste sense.”

“By that I mean something that is perceptually distinct and very clear,” Beauchamp said. As a test, he considers whether other cultures have also identified the taste.

“There’s no doubt that things like calcium, starch, fat interact with our taste system and modulate what we like and what we consume,” Beauchamp said. “But to me,…

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