Better Bitter Tasters Bust Bacteria

Scientific American

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'Tis the season when bacterial sinus infections run rampant. But some people are better able to ward off that malady. And they can be identified by their taste buds. Because those of us who can better detect bitter flavors may also be better equipped to fight off upper respiratory tract infections. The finding is in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. [Robert J. Lee et al., T2R38 taste receptor polymorphisms underlie susceptibility to upper respiratory infection]

It turns out that those bitter taste receptors aren’t just in our mouths. They’re also in our noses. Being better able to sense bitterness may be a first line of defense against bacteria. That’s because those bacteria actually taste bitter to us. So when taste receptors in our airways sense a bitter flavor they roll out the defenses. Cilia lining our sinuses beat faster, to sweep away germs. And bacteria-killing nitric oxide gets released into our nasal cavities. Better bitter sensing means a bigger response.

It’s one reason researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center are trying to come up with a universal taste test—a standardized measurement of how well we sense flavors. Because one key to living healthier could be on the tip of your tongue.

—Mary Harris

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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