New center to unlock secrets of smell and taste

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Taste, Olfaction

A new molecular biology center could transform our understanding of
taste and smell perception and help the food industry tackle
pressing issues such as salt substitution, writes Anthony
Fletcher.

The $10.9 million center, part of Monell's University City facility in Philadelphia, will provide scientists with increased capacity to integrate molecular biology techniques such as genomics and proteomics with human sensory perception research.

"Basically, the new facility will greatly enhance the ability of Monell's scientists to identify genes involved in detection and perception of taste and the smell,"​ Leslie Stein, science communication officer for Monell Chemical Senses Center told FoodNavigator-USA.com.

"The expansion gives Monell investigators new tools to better understand taste, smell and other chemosensations."

For example, an understanding of how human salty taste works is imperative to facilitating the identification of acceptable and practical salt substitutes and enhancers. Using recent advances in molecular genetics, Monell's scientists are seeking to identify and express genes related to the ENaC receptor subunits believed to be critical to salty taste detection.

"Such knowledge will address important public health concerns by enabling new strategies to reduce salt intake, while also benefiting the food industry's attempts to respond to those concerns,"​ said Stein.

A second phase, including expanded laboratory space in an additional wing, will be competed in 2008. Monell's new Molecular Biology Wing will be followed by an expansion of the Center's Human Chemosensory Perception Research Facility, allowing Monell's scientists to directly integrate genetic findings with research on human sensory perception.

Overall, laboratory areas will occupy 79 percent of the total research area, with the office area occupying 21 percent of this space. The largest part of the new laboratories will be occupied by the wet lab area, designed as an open laboratory.

"Such research will help understanding of how genes contribute to individual differences in taste perception, both between individuals and across the lifespan,"​ said Stein. "Food ingredients may eventually be more specifically targeted towards different populations and age groups."

A recent study from Monell found that genetic influences on bitter taste sensitivity were in some cases modified by age, with children being more sensitive to a form of bitter than adults with the same bitter taste genotype. This indicates that parents and their children may live in different sensory worlds due to differences of taste sensitivity related to genes, age, or both.

Future research will continue to tease apart these differences.

The next frontier will involve exploring how genes contribute to olfactory perception and to differences among individuals in the ability to detect specific odors, also vital to understanding how humans respond to foods. Individual differences in perception of chemosensory irritants ¨C such as chili peppers, carbonation and menthol - will also be a focus of future genetic research.

"The flavor of a food or beverage is critical for its acceptance,"​ said Gary K. Beauchamp PhD, Monell director.

"No matter how nutritious a food is, if it doesn't have a good flavor it won't be consumed. Our vision for Monell's new laboratories is to bring together molecular biology with sophisticated human sensory perception biology."

Monell's "Science of the Senses"​ capital campaign is supported by philanthropic gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and leaders in the food, flavor and fragrance industries, as well as a $600,000 challenge grant from The Kresge Foundation.

The Monell Chemical Senses Center was established in 1968 as the world's first scientific institute for research on the chemical senses - taste, smell, and other chemosensations. The Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring the chemical senses at every level, from molecular to behavioral.

Related topics: R&D

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