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Sweet? Bitter? Penguins Can't Tell, Research Suggests

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Penguins appear to lack taste receptor genes governing three of the five tastes, according to a genomic analysis conducted by a trio of researchers from the US and China.

The trio, led by Jianzhi Zhang at the University of Michigan, searched through the genomes of the Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) and emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) and other birds for taste receptor genes. Penguins, they found, lacked receptors involved in perceiving sweet, bitter, and umami taste, but have retained salty and sour taste receptors, as they reported in Current Biology.

"Penguins eat fish, so you would guess that they need the umami receptor genes, but for some reason they don't have them," Michigan's Zhang said in a statement. "These findings are surprising and puzzling, and we do not have a good explanation for them. But we have a few ideas."

Zhang and his team searched for genes that encode taste receptors — sour's PKD2L1, salty's ENaC, umami's Tas1r1–Tas1r3 heterodimer, sweet's Tas1r2–Tas1r3 heterodimer, and bitter's Tas2r genes — in Adélie and emperor penguins, as well as in the little egret and a dozen or so other birds whose genomes were publicly available.

None of the birds had the Tas1r2 gene, which encodes part of the sweet taste receptor, though the researchers did find the gene in mammalian and reptile outgroups.

Tas1r3, which makes up the other part of the sweet taste receptor heterodimer as well as part of the umami taste receptor heterodimer, was also lacking in penguins. It was, the researchers noted, present in other birds.

The other half of the umami taste-specific receptor, Tas1r1, is actually a pseudogene in penguins, the researchers found, as it contains a two basepair deletion that leads to a premature stop codon.

Other penguin species shared this pseudogene, but other birds have working copies, Zhang and his team reported.

Similarly, the researchers identified three Tas2r pseudogenes in penguins while most other birds had working copies of the gene behind bitter taste. They noted, though, those three penguin pseudogenes were orthologous to the two working copies and one pseudogene version of Tas2r found in the little egret.

This, Zhang and his colleagues said, indicates that the common ancestor of all penguins lost the umami and bitter tastes, while the sweet taste was lost even earlier in the avian lineage.

The receptor gene for sour taste was present in all birds, including penguins, as were the genes encoding the subunits of the salty taste receptor, ENaC.

Zhang and his colleagues said they suspect that the penguin's ancestral stomping grounds of Antarctica might have had a role in this gene loss.

Trpm5, which is involved in transducing the sweet, umami, and bitter tastes, doesn't work well at lower temperatures. At freezing temperatures, the researchers suggested that it might not work at all, leading to the inability to taste sweet, umami, and bitter, and then to the loss of the genes linked to those tastes.