New York For the first time, scientists have apparently identified one of the tiny taste bud sensors that let people detect sweetness in foods.
The work could lead to improved artificial sweeteners, and maybe help explain why some people have a sweet tooth.
Researchers have actually identified a gene, present in mice and people, as the blueprint for a "receptor" in taste buds. It's not yet proven that this receptor detects sweetness, but the researchers said the evidence is strong.
"We feel this is an excellent candidate for a sweet receptor," said Linda Buck of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Harvard Medical School.
She and colleagues, including postdoctoral fellow Jean-Pierre Montmayeur, who found the gene, report their work in the May issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Dr. Robert Margolskee of the Hughes institute and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said he also believes it is a sweet receptor. His group reports their findings in the May issue of the journal Nature Genetics.
Scientists believe people have more than one sweet receptor, allowing them to detect sweetness in a variety of food substances. If the newly identified receptor is for sweetness, it might be used to develop better artificial sweeteners that taste more like sugar, Margolskee said.
He also speculated that different versions of the gene might make people more or less sensitive to sweet taste, and so give some a sweet tooth. "Maybe it explains someone who takes two lumps of sugar in their coffee, as opposed to one lump or no lump," Margolskee said.
If so, the gene may play some role in promoting obesity, he said.