Genetic and Environmental Associations of Taste Perception in Humans

Taste perception is important in health and disease. From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to make competent decisions between nutritious and toxic food elements was crucial in survival. Living in a westernized world, hedonic feeding seems to have overgrown homeostatic signals of satiety and fullness, leading to overconsumption of energy dense, unhealthy food and with this contributing to the obesity pandemic. On the other hand, a reduction of taste perception affects the quality of life and has even been linked to depression and other diseases. Therefore, this work aimed at contributing to a deeper understanding of taste perception in humans. To this goal, comprehensive analysis of genetic and environmental data from a large human cohort was conducted with respect to bitter and salty taste perception. The study revealed novel insights into human taste perception: In general, bitter taste sensitivity was more closely linked to genetic traits than salty while salty taste sensitivity demonstrated more associations with environmental factors. In genetic analyses nucleotide polymorphisms as well as haplotypes involved in taste perception of specific bitter compounds popped up, which is in accordance with previous studies and by this strengthening the validity of the herein presented cohort. This work further suggests an ion exchanger to be involved in salty taste perception in taste bud cells, which might be of interest since transduction mechanisms of salty taste are not fully understood yet. Furthermore, an intestinal oligosaccharide digesting enzyme which is a target of anti-diabetic drugs was linked to bitter taste and seems to be under regulatory control of bitter tasting nutrients as shown in other studies. Despite the fact that only few associations of taste and nutrition could be found, an overall trend was observable in that a less taste sensitive phenotype seems to be connected with a healthier diet. Matching these findings, probands with high bitter as well as salty taste sensitivity exhibited a higher BMI. Furthermore, genes involved in neuron development and functionality have been detected to be in association with taste and might be of interest in conjunction with BMI and taste processing brain regions, which indeed revealed a direct link with obesity but not with taste perception in a subcohort of this study. Several gut bacterial species showed associations with taste. In high salt sensitivity, two candidate bacteria showed strong associations with a gut bacterial composition low in diverse species richness, being in line with a reduction in α-diversity in obese subjects – which also exhibited a rather salt sensitive phenotype in this cohort. Akkermansia, known for a variety of health promoting effects, was reduced in states of bitter sensitivity. In conclusion this work provides novel insights into taste perception in humans, with promising candidates which might be worth further investigations in follow up studies.


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