Although bitter has over 40 different receptors on the human tongue, “sweet” only has one. Being able to detect a greater range of bitter
is evolutionarily advantageous because bitter usually signifies potential toxin.
The TAS1R1+TAS1R3 heterodimer receptor functions as the umami (savory) receptor, responding to L-amino acid binding, especially L-glutamate. The umami taste is most frequently associated with the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) and can be enhanced through the binding of inosine monophosphate (IMP) and guanosine monophosphate (GMP) molecules. TAS1R1+3 expressing cells are found mostly in the fungiform papillae at the tip and edges of the tongue and palate taste receptor cells in the roof of the mouth. These cells are shown to synapse upon the chorda tympani nerves to send their signals to the brain, although some activation of the glossopharyngeal nerve has been found.
The TAS1R2+TAS1R3 heterodimer receptor functions as the sweet receptor by binding to a wide variety of sugars and sugar substitutes. TAS1R2+3 expressing cells are found in circumvallate papillae and foliate papillae near the back of the tongue and palate taste receptor cells in the roof of the mouth. These cells are shown to synapse upon the chorda tympani and glossopharyngeal nerves to send their signals to the brain. The TAS1R3 homodimer also functions as a sweet receptor in much the same way as TAS1R2+3 but has decreased sensitivity to sweet substances. Natural sugars are more easily detected by the TAS1R3 receptor than sugar substitutes. This may help explain why sugar and artificial sweeteners have different tastes.
While sour taste has historically been regarded as the domain of ion channels, receptors for sour taste are now being proposed. HCN1 and HCN4 (HCN channels) were two such proposals; both of these receptors are cyclic nucleotide-gated channels. The two ion channels suggested to contribute to sour taste are ACCN1 and TASK-1.
Various receptors have also been proposed for salty tastes, along with the possible taste detection of lipids, complex carbohydrates, and water. Evidence for these receptors is, however, shaky at best, and is often unconvincing in mammal studies. For example, the proposed ENaC receptor for sodium detection can only be shown to contribute to sodium taste in Drosophilia.
The TAS2R proteins function as bitter taste receptors. There are 43 human TAS2R genes, each of which (excluding the five pseudogenes) lacks introns and codes for a GPCR protein. These proteins, as opposed to TAS1R proteins, have short extracellular domains and are located in circumvallate papillae, palate, foliate papillae, and epiglottis taste buds, with reduced expression in fungiform papillae. Though it is certain that multiple TAS2Rs are expressed in one taste receptor cell, it is still debated whether mammals can distinguish between the tastes of different bitter ligands. Some overlap must occur, however, as there are far more bitter compounds than there are TAS2R genes. Common bitter ligands include cycloheximide, denatonium, PROP (6-n-propyl-2-thiouracil), PTC (phenylthiocarbamide), and β-glucopyranosides.
Signal transduction of bitter stimuli is accomplished via the α-subunit of gustducin. This G protein subunit activates a taste phosphodiesterase and decreases cyclic nucleotide levels. Further steps in the transduction pathway are still unknown. The βγ-subunit of gustducin also mediates taste by activating IP3 (inositol triphosphate) and DAG (diglyceride). These second messengers may open gated ion channels or may cause release of internal calcium. Though all TAS2Rs are located in gustducin-containing cells, knockout of gustducin does not completely abolish sensitivity to bitter compounds, suggesting a redundant mechanism for bitter tasting (unsurprising given that a bitter taste generally signals the presence of a toxin). One proposed mechanism for gustducin-independent bitter tasting is via ion channel interaction by specific bitter ligands, similar to the ion channel interaction which occurs in the tasting of sour and salty stimuli.
One of the best-researched TAS2R proteins is TAS2R38, which contributes to the tasting of both PROP and PTC. It is also the only taste receptor whose polymorphisms are shown to be responsible for differences in taste perception. Current studies are focused on determining other such taste phenotype-determining polymorphisms.