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12 Delectable Facts About the Science of Taste

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Now that the holiday season is over, you may be cutting back on indulgent meals because of your waistline. But your taste buds are eager for flavor year-round. A lot more than your tongue is involved in the process of tasting food. Taste is not only one of the most pleasurable of all the senses, but a surprisingly complex sense that science is beginning to understand—and manipulate. Here are 12 fascinating facts about your ability to taste. 

1. EVERYONE HAS A DIFFERENT NUMBER OF TASTE BUDS.

We all have several thousand taste buds in our mouths, but the number varies from person to person; between 2000 and 10,000 is the average range. And taste buds are not limited to your tongue; they can be found in the roof and walls of your mouth, throat, and esophagus. As you age, your taste buds become less sensitive, which experts believe may be why foods that you don’t like as a child become palatable to you as an adult. 

2. YOU TASTE WITH YOUR BRAIN.

The moment you bite into a slice of pie, your mouth seems full of flavor. But most of that taste sensation is happening in your brain. More accurately, cranial nerves and taste bud receptors in your mouth send molecules of your food to olfactory nerve endings in the roof of your nose. The molecules bind to these nerve endings, which then signal the olfactory bulb to send smell messages directly to two important cranial nerves, the facial nerve and the glossopharyngeal nerve, which communicate with a part of the brain known as the gustatory cortex.

As taste and nerve messages move further through the brain, they join up with smell messages to give the sensation of flavor, which feels as if it comes from the mouth.

3. YOU CAN'T TASTE WELL IF YOU CAN'T SMELL.

When you smell something through your nostrils, the brain registers these sensations as coming from the nose, while smells perceived through the back of the throat activate parts of the brain associated with signals from the mouth. Since much of taste is odor traveling to olfactory receptors in your brain, it makes sense that you won’t taste much at all if you can’t smell. If you are unable to smell for reasons that include head colds, smoking cigarettes, side effects of medications, or a broken nose, olfactory receptors may either be too damaged, blocked, or inflamed to send their signals on up to your brain. 

4. EATING SWEET FOODS HELPS FORM A MEMORY OF A MEAL.

Eating sweet foods causes the brain to form a memory of a meal, according to a new study in the journal Hippocampus, and researchers believe it can actually help you control eating behavior. Neurons in the dorsal hippocampus, the part of the brain central to episodic memory, are activated when you eat sweets. Episodic memory is that kind that helps you recall what you experienced at a particular time and place. "We think that episodic memory can be used to control eating behavior," said study co-author Marise Parent, of the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State. "We make decisions like 'I probably won't eat now. I had a big breakfast.' We make decisions based on our memory of what and when we ate."

5. SCIENTISTS CAN TURN TASTES ON AND OFF BY ACTIVATING AND SILENCING CLUSTERS OF BRAIN CELLS.

Dedicated taste receptors in the brain have been found for each of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory).  Recently, scientists outlined in the journal Nature how they were able to turn specific tastes “on” or “off” in mice, without introducing food, by stimulating and silencing neurons in the brains. For instance, when they stimulated neurons associated with “bitter,” mice made puckering expressions, and could still taste sweet, and vice versa. 

6. YOU CAN TWEAK YOUR TASTE BUDS.

Most of us have had the unfortunate, mouth-puckering experience of drinking perfectly good orange juice after brushing our teeth only to have it taste more like unsweetened lemon juice. Taste buds, it turns out, are sensitive enough that certain compounds in foods and medicines can alter our ability to perceive one of the five common tastes. The foaming agent sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate in most toothpaste seems to temporarily suppress sweetness receptors. This isn't so unusual. A compound called cynarin in artichokes temporarily blocks your sweet receptors. Then, when you drink water, the cynarin is washed away, making your sweet receptors “wake up” and thus making the water taste sweet. A compound called miraculin, found in the Indian herb Gymnema sylvestre, toys with your sweet receptors in a similar way. 

7. THE SMELL OF HAM CAN MAKE YOUR FOOD "TASTE" SALTIER.

There’s an entire industry that concocts the tastes of the food you buy at the grocery store. Working with phenomena known as phantom aromas or aroma-taste interactions, scientists found that people associate “ham” with salt. So simply adding a subtle “ham-like” scent or subtle flavor to a food can make your brain perceive it as saltier than it actually is. The same concept applies to the scent of vanilla, which people perceive as sweet. 

8. YOUR TASTE BUDS PREFER SAVORY WHEN FLYING.

A study by Cornell University food scientists found that loud, noisy environments, such as when you’re traveling on an airplane, compromise your sense of taste. The study found that people traveling on airplanes had suppressed sweet receptors and enhanced umami receptors. The German airline Lufthansa confirmed that on flights, passengers ordered nearly as much tomato juice as beer. The study opens the door to new questions about how taste is influenced by more than our own internal circuitry, including our interactions with our environments.

9. PICKY EATERS MAY BE "SUPERTASTERS.”

The picky eater may have a new excuse to turn down your homecooked meal: An extreme dislike of eggplant or sensitivity to the slightest hint of onion may mean you are a supertaster—one of 25 percent of people who have extra papillae in your tongue, in essence, a greater number of taste buds, thus receptors. 

10. SOME OF YOUR TASTE PREFERENCES ARE GENETIC.

While your genetics may not explain your love of peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches or rocky road ice cream specifically, there may be code written into your DNA that accounts for your preference for sweet foods or your aversion to certain flavors. The first discovery of a genetic underpinning to taste came in 1931, when a chemist named Arthur Fox was working with powdered PTC (phenylthiocarbamide), and some of the compound blew into the air. One colleague found it to have a bitter taste, while Fox did not perceive this. They conducted an experiment among friends and family and found wide variation in how (and whether) people perceived the flavor of the PTC to be bitter or tasteless. Geneticists later discovered that the perception of PTC flavor (similar to naturally occurring compounds) is based in a single gene, TAS2R38, that codes for a taste receptor on the tongue. In a 2005 study, researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center found that the version of this gene also predicted a child's preference for sweet foods.

11. IN FACT, YOUR GENES INFLUENCE WHETHER CILANTRO TASTES LIKE AN HERB OR LIKE SOAP.

There may be no flavor more hotly debated or deeply loathed than the humble cilantro herb (also known as coriander). Entire websites such as IHateCilantro.com exist extolling dislike for the herb’s “soapy” or “perfumy” flavor, while those who like it simply think it gives a nice kick to their salsa. Researchers at the consumer genetics firm 23andMe identified two common genetic variants linked to people's “soap” perceptions. A follow-up study in a separate subset of customers confirmed the associations. The most compelling variant can be found within a cluster of olfactory receptor genes, which influence our sense of smell. One of those genes, OR6A2, encodes a receptor that is highly sensitive to aldehyde chemicals, which cilantro contains.

12. SUGAR CRAVINGS HAVE A BIOLOGICAL BASIS.

Your urge for more hot fudge may have little to do with a lack of self-control; scientists believe that our yearning for sweets is a biological preference that may have been designed to ensure our survival. The liking for sweet tastes in our ancient evolution may have ensured the acceptance of sweet-tasting foods, such as breast milk and vitamin-rich fruits. Moreover, recent research suggests that we crave sweets for their pain-reducing properties

All images courtesy of iStock 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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