Types of Taste
Arguably the simplest receptor found in the mouth is the salt (NaCl) receptor. An ion channel in the taste cell wall allows Na+ ions to enter the cell. This on its own depolarizes the cell, and opens voltage-regulated Ca2+ gates, flooding the cell with ions and leading to neurotransmitter release. This sodium channel is known as EnAC and is composed of three subunits. EnAC can be blocked by the drug amiloride in many mammals, especially rats. The sensitivity of the salt taste to amiloride in humans, however, is much less pronounced, leading to conjecture that there may be additional receptor proteins besides EnAC that may not have been discovered yet.
Sour taste signals the presence of acidic compounds (H+ ions in solution). There are three different receptor proteins at work in sour taste. The first is a simple ion channel which allows hydrogen ions to flow directly into the cell. The protein for this is EnAC, the same protein involved in the distinction of salt taste (this implies a relationship between salt and sour receptors and could explain why salty taste is reduced when a sour taste is present). There are also H+ gated channels present. The first is a K+ channel, which ordinarily allows K+ ions to escape from the cell. H+ ions block these, trapping the potassium ions inside the cell (this receptor is classified as MDEG1 of the EnAC/Deg Family). A third protein opens to Na+ ions when a hydrogen ion attaches to it, allowing the sodium ions to flow down the concentration gradient into the cell. The influx of ions leads to the opening of a voltage regulated Ca2+ gate. These receptors work together and lead to depolarization of the cell and neurotransmitter release.
There are many classes of bitter compounds which can be chemically very different. It is interesting that the human body has evolved a very sophisticated sense for bitter substances: we can distinguish between the many radically different compounds which produce a generally “bitter” response. This may be because the sense of bitter taste is so important to survival, as ingesting a bitter compound may lead to injury or death. Bitter compounds act through structures in the taste cell walls called G-protein coupled receptors (GPCR’s). Recently, a new group of GPCR’s was discovered, known as the T2R’s, which is thought to only respond to bitter stimuli. When the bitter compound activates the GPCR, it in turn releases gustducin, the G-protein it was coupled to. Gustducin is made of three subunits. When it is activated by the GPCR, its subunits break apart and activate phosphodiesterase, a nearby enzyme. It then converts a precursor within the cell into a secondary messenger, which closes potassium ion channels. This secondary messenger can stimulate the endoplasmic reticulum to release Ca2+, which contributes to depolarization. This leads to a build-up of potassium ions in the cell, depolarization, and neurotransmitter release. It is also possible for some bitter tastants to interact directly with the Gprotein, because of a structural similarity to the relevant GPCR.
Like bitter tastes, sweet taste transduction involves GPCR’s. The specific mechanism depends on the specific molecule. “Natural” sweeteners such as saccharides activate the GPCR, which releases gustducin. The gustducin then activates the molecule adenylate cyclase, which is already inside the cell. This molecule increases concentration of the molecule cAMP, or adenosine 3', 5'-cyclic monophosphate. This protein will either directly or indirectly close potassium ion channels, leading to depolarization and neurotransmitter release. Synthetic sweeteners such as saccharin activate different GPCR’s, initiating a similar process of protein transitions, starting with the protein phospholipase A, which ultimately leads to the blocking of potassium ion channels.
Umami is a Japanese word meaning "savory" or "meaty". It is thought that umami receptors act much the same way as bitter and sweet receptors (they involve GPCR’s), but not much is known about their specific function. We do know that umami detects glutamates that are common in meats, cheese and other protein-heavy foods. Umami receptors react to foods treated with monosodium glutamate (MSG). This explains why eating foods that have MSG in them often give a sense of fullness. It is thought that the amino acid L-glutamate bonds to a type of GPCR known as a metabotropic glutamate receptor (mGluR4). This causes the G-protein complex to activate a secondary receptor, which ultimately leads to neurotransmitter release. The intermediate steps are not known.