In The Field

Human Genome meeting: In the best possible taste

One of the fascinating themes emerging from the talks here is how researchers are really getting to grips with how our genetics make us each so individual. Studies have shown how the structures of our genomes is surprisingly varied, and how there are intriguing differences on the genes governing senses such as smell and taste. One talk that triggered a lot of interest and debate here in the press room was given by Lynn Jorde from the University of Utah, who presented work about how the different versions of bitter taste receptors you were born with influence what kinds of foods and flavours you like.

Because a) we’re all die-hard empiricists and b) it was 10 pm on a Friday night and still light, we headed off to put this genetic variation business to a taste test—at downtown Helsinki’s coolest nightlife attraction, the Arctic Ice Bar.

Here’s the deal. Apparently, you pay 17 euros to get in, they lend you a warm coat and shoes and you head down to the bar, which is basically a giant freezer containing a bar and seats carved of ice, where fur-hooded waiters serve shots of chilly Finnish vodka. Unfortunately, by the time we pitched up, there was a massive queue. Worse, it was a queue of people who all looked about 15 years younger than we are. We slunk off to a cosier-looking watering hole to test our reactions to the local beers.

For the purposes our selfless experiment, beer was probably better than vodka anyway, owing to the bitter elements in its taste. According to Jorde, one set of bitter taste receptors is encoded by the TASR2 gene family, and is extremely varied among different populations. Most of the compounds that activate these receptors, found on the tongue, are plant toxins and there is evidence that these receptors have come under strong pressure from natural selection.

The most studied receptor so far is encoded by the PTC gene. One variant of this allows you to taste phenylthiocarbamide, which is similar to toxins found in sprouts and broccoli, while another does not–perhaps explaining why some people happily tuck into them while others spit them out.

I have no idea whether the same rules apply to the compounds in beer, but we decided to sample some anyway. Jorde had suggested that, as we get older, the levels of some of these bitter receptors might get turned down, so the broccoli we hated as kids would become more palatable as we age.

Perhaps this is why, although most of us thought beer tasted disgusting when we first tried it as teenagers, we all agreed that the local brew was actually pretty good.

So maybe that is one consolation for getting older–we might feel out of place in the Ice Bar on a Friday night, but our mature palates can appreciate the finer things in life.


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