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7.5: Taste and Smell

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    Taste and Smell

    Learning Objectives

    1. Explain why taste and smell are the most interconnected senses

    2. Identify the five primary tastes in humans: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami

    3. Identify how the five primary tastes allow individuals to adapt to changes in the environment and increase chances of survival

    4. Explain how olfactory receptors are responsive to different odorants

    Being able to sense chemicals in the environment through taste (gustation) and smell (olfaction) can help an organism find food, avoid poisons, and attract mates. Humans can perceive five basic tastes: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami. Bitter taste often indicates a dangerous substance like a poison, sweet taste signifies a high energy food, salty taste indicates a substance with high salt content, sour taste indicates an acidic food, and umami taste indicates a high protein food.

    Illustration showing a close-up drawing of a papilla and a taste bud. Details in caption.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The visible bumps on the surface of the tongue are papillae that house taste buds. Taste buds are made up of taste cells and basal cells. The taste cells synapse on afferent axons that send information to the central nervous system. Tastants in food access the taste cells via the taste pore, where the food particles interact with the microvilli of the taste cells. ‘Tongue Anatomy’ by Casey Henley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (CC BY-NC-SA) 4.0 International License.

    Taste and smell, are the most interconnected senses in that both involve molecules of the stimulus entering the body and bonding to receptors. Smell lets an animal sense the presence of food and other chemicals in the environment that can impact their survival. Similarly, the sense of taste allows animals to discriminate between types of foods. Different tasting foods have different attributes, both helpful and harmful. For example, sweet-tasting substances tend to be highly caloric, which could be necessary for survival in lean times. Bitterness is often associated with toxicity, and sourness is often associated with spoiled food. Salty foods are valuable in maintaining homeostasis by helping the body retain water and by providing ions necessary for proper cell function.


    Odorants (odor molecules) enter the nose and dissolve in the olfactory epithelium, the mucosa at the back of the nasal cavity (as illustrated in the figure below). The olfactory epithelium is a collection of specialized olfactory receptors in the back of the nasal cavity that spans an area about 5 cm2 in humans. Recall that sensory cells are neurons. An olfactory receptor, which is a dendrite of a specialized neuron, responds when it binds certain molecules inhaled from the environment by sending impulses directly to the olfactory bulb of the brain. Humans have about 12 million olfactory receptors, distributed among hundreds of different receptor types that respond to different odors. Twelve million seems like a large number of receptors, but compare that to other animals: rabbits have about 100 million, most dogs have about 1 billion, and bloodhounds—dogs selectively bred for their sense of smell—have about 4 billion. The overall size of the olfactory epithelium also differs between species, with that of bloodhounds, for example, being many times larger than that of humans.

    Olfactory neurons are bipolar neurons (neurons with two processes from the cell body). Each neuron has a single dendrite buried in the olfactory epithelium, and extending from this dendrite are 5 to 20 receptor-laden, hair-like cilia that trap odorant molecules. The sensory receptors on the cilia are proteins, and it is the variations in their amino acid chains that make the receptors sensitive to different odorants. Each olfactory sensory neuron has only one type of receptor on its cilia, and the receptors are specialized to detect specific odorants, so the bipolar neurons themselves are specialized. When an odorant binds with a receptor that recognizes it, the sensory neuron associated with the receptor is stimulated. Olfactory stimulation is the only sensory information that directly reaches the cerebral cortex, whereas other sensations are relayed through the thalamus.

    Illustration A shows a bipolar neuron, which has two dendrites. Illustration B shows a cross section of a human head. The nostrils lead to the nasal cavity, which sits above the mouth. The olfactory bulb is just above the olfactory epithelium that lines the nasal cavity. Neurons run from the bulb into the nasal cavity.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): In the human olfactory system, (a) bipolar olfactory neurons extend from (b) the olfactory epithelium, where olfactory receptors are located, to the olfactory bulb. (credit: modification of work by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe, MD, cardiologist)


    Detecting a taste (gustation) is fairly similar to detecting an odor (olfaction), given that both taste and smell rely on chemical receptors being stimulated by certain molecules. The primary organ of taste is the taste bud. A taste bud is a cluster of gustatory receptors (taste cells) that are located within the bumps on the tongue called papillae (singular: papilla) (illustrated in the figure below). There are several structurally distinct papillae. Filiform papillae, which are located across the tongue, are tactile, providing friction that helps the tongue move substances, and contain no taste cells. In contrast, fungiform papillae, which are located mainly on the anterior two-thirds of the tongue, each contain one to eight taste buds and also have receptors for pressure and temperature. The large circumvallate papillae contain up to 100 taste buds and form a V near the posterior margin of the tongue.

    An illustration shows small, filiform papillae scattered across the front two thirds of the tongue. Larger circumvallate papillae form an inverted V at the back of the tongue. Medium-sized fungiform papillae are shown scattered across the back two thirds of the tongue. Foliate papillae form ridges on the back edges of the tongue. A micrograph shows a cross-section of a tongue in which the foliate papillae can be seen as square protrusions about 200 microns across and deep.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The human tongue. (a) Foliate, circumvallate, and fungiform papillae are located on different regions of the tongue. (b) Foliate papillae are prominent protrusions on this light micrograph. (credit a: modification of work by NCI; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

    Each taste bud’s taste cells are replaced every 10 to 14 days. These are elongated cells with hair-like processes called microvilli at the tips that extend into the taste bud pore. Food molecules (tastants) are dissolved in saliva, and they bind with and stimulate the receptors on the microvilli. The receptors for tastants are located across the outer portion and front of the tongue, outside of the middle area where the filiform papillae are most prominent.

    In humans, there are five primary tastes, each receptor is specific to its stimulus (tastant). Transduction of the five tastes happens through different mechanisms that reflect the molecular composition of the tastant. These tastants bind to their respective receptors, thereby exciting the specialized neurons associated with them. Tasting abilities and sense of smell change with age. In humans, the senses decline dramatically by age 50 and continue to decline. A child may find a food to be too spicy, whereas an elderly person may find the same food to be bland and unappetizing.


    This page titled 7.5: Taste and Smell is shared under a mixed license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Multiple Authors (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .

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