Hello and happy Saturday! Here’s this week’s round-up of eclectic and under-the-radar health and medical science news.
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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.
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.