Taste: Cellular Basis


Taste is the sense that detects the chemical composition of foodstuffs. Taste is initiated in peripheral sensory organs termed taste buds. Chemical stimuli in the oral cavity are sensed by receptor cells in taste buds, which transit information to primary sensory afferents and on to higher centres in the brain.

Keywords: gustation; chemosensory transduction; taste bud; receptors; orbitofrontal cortex

Figure 1.

Henning's 1916 taste tetrahedron. Tastes are represented as points situated between the four primary qualities: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. For example, the taste of grapefruit (shaded circular spot) might be represented as the combination of sour, bitter and sweet.

Figure 2.

Schematic representation of a taste bud embedded in the stratified squamous epithelium of the tongue. A single taste bud contains 50–100 cells, which include receptor cells, stem cells and possibly sustentacular cells.

Figure 3.

Summary of chemosensory transduction mechanisms believed to operate in mammalian taste bud cells: (a) transduction pathways for receptor‐coupled taste stimuli; (b) transduction pathways for taste stimuli that permeate or modulate ion channels. Not all taste transduction mechanisms are included in these schemes, such as those for K+ and NH4+ salts. Also, there is evidence in fish taste buds for direct ligand‐gated ion channels for certain amino acids. Steps that remain to be demonstrated experimentally are in italics. For example, although neurotransmitters are believed to be released from taste cells and excite primary afferent fibres, to date no transmitter(s) has been identified. Thus in the chemosensory pathways listed below, the release of neurotransmitter is italicized. Abbreviations: AC, adenylyl cyclase; AMP, adenosine monophosphate; ASSC, amiloride‐sensitive sodium channel; cAMP, cyclic adenosine monophosphate; cGMP, cyclic guanosine monophosphate; DAG, diacylglycerol; GMP, guanosine monophosphate; IP3, inositol triphosphate; PDE, phosphodiesterase; PKA, phosphokinase A; PLC, phospholipase C; VGCC, voltage‐gated Ca2+ channel.

Figure 4.

Summary of the taste axis, from peripheral sensory organs (taste buds) to the cerebral cortex. Sensory information from taste buds ascends to the primary gustatory cortex and association cortices. Not shown are descending (efferent) pathways believed to exist at several levels in the taste axis.



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Further Reading

Doty RL (ed.) (1995) Handbook of Olfaction and Gustation. New York: Marcel Dekker.

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Roper SD (1992) The microphysiology of peripheral taste organs. Journal of Neuroscience 12: 1127–1134.

Simon SA and Roper SD (1993) Mechanisms of Taste Transduction. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Spielman AI (1998) Gustducin and its role in taste. Journal of Dental Research 77: 539–544.

Stewart RE, DeSimone JA and Hill DL (1997) New perspectives in a gustatory physiology: transduction, development, and plasticity. American Journal of Physiology 272: C1–C26.

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Roper, Stephen D(Apr 2001) Taste: Cellular Basis. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1038/npg.els.0000216]