Genes Give Africans a Better Sense of Taste

Ewen Callaway, New Scientist, January 2, 2009

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But they might all be wrong. New research suggests that Africans have more sensitive palates than Europeans and Asians—at least for bitter tastes.

A survey of numerous African populations in Kenya and Cameroon found a striking amount of diversity in a gene responsible for sensing bitter tastes.

“If they have more genetic diversity, there’s more variation in their ability to taste,” says Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who presented the findings at a recent conference.

Europeans and Asians typically have only one of two forms of a gene called TAS2R38, which detects a bitter-tasting compound called PTC and similar chemicals in vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

The gene makes the difference between people tasting a weak dilution of the compound or not, with little nuance in between.

Taste test

To see how Africans stack up, Tishkoff and colleague Michael Campbell offered a wide range of dilutions of PTC to different populations of pastoralists and hunter-gatherers in Kenya and Cameroon.

“They keep tasting it until they make a yucky face and spit it out,” she says.

As a whole, Kenyans and Cameroonians sensed subtler gradients in the concentration than Europeans, they found. The Africans’ TAS2R38 genes also contained far more variation than is found in the rest of the world.

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Seafood benefits

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Tishkoff wonders why, then, Europeans lost some the ability to sense bitterness. Different diets and evolutionary forces offer one explanation, she says.

Their lack of bitter taste diversity could also be due to a paucity of genetic variation in the small number of African migrants that became ancestors to the Europeans. In general, sub-Saharan Africans boast more genetic diversity than people native to Europe and other continents.

Avoiding potentially toxic plants might not be the only reason for diversity in bitter taste genes, says Theodore Schurr, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the study.

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