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Bitter Trials

For those of us who are old enough, you may remember learning about the “tongue map” in school; the image with 4 basic flavors mapped out on different regions of the tongue; sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. It turns out that the “tongue map” is a myth and completely inaccurate. There are at least five basic tastes (add umami) and the entire tongue can sense all of these tastes equally. In actuality, a lot less is known about the mechanisms of taste than other senses like sight or hearing.

Taste is often associated with strong emotions and states of pleasure or displeasure, and is directly related to evolution. Orkan Telhan is currently focusing his research at Integral Molecular on bitter taste and the way that it is perceived by humans and other animals. Bitterness is generally described as a sharp, unpleasant or disagreeable flavor. People who are strongly opposed to bitter taste usually do not enjoy eating vegetables such as broccoli or brussels sprouts. The ability to detect bitterness is thought to have evolved as a way to protect ourselves from toxic plants and other substances.

Integral Molecular has done a fair bit of research on bitter taste, (read more at this link) including looking at ways that cats respond to bitter compounds. Cats in the wild do not need to taste bitterness, because they are carnivores and don’t eat plants. Domestic cats, on the other hand, can be pretty finicky eaters and this is believed to be caused by bitter perception. This type of research can be used to develop more appetizing food for cats, as well as designing masking agents to enhance the flavor of cat medications.

All of these insights on the perception of taste are accomplished by looking at things on a molecular level, using cell-based assays to study membrane proteins. Orkan is currently getting familiar with the Flexstation II – a microplate reader with a scanning fluorometer & integrated fluid transfer workstation.

This machine is capable of simulating a tongue. Cells that represent taste buds are manipulated using a liquid handling robot, allowing taste receptors to be quantified on a molecular level. The data that is generated looks something like this:

Where does the art come in? That’s a great question. The next challenge is to use this visual information and transform it artistically. This is not an easy task, and probably the most difficult part of stepping into a laboratory as an artist. Orkan’s goal is to create artwork that reflects reciprocity – that is equally important from both scientific and artistic perspectives. During the next few weeks Orkan will be diving deeper into this process and providing more updates.

For more reading on Orkan Telhan’s research on taste and flavors, check out this article :

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