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Sweet Tooth? Sweet Gut: USU Biologist Contributes to Taste Cell Study

Tuesday, Mar. 08, 2011

USU professor Tim Gilbertson

Tim Gilbertson, professor in USU's Department of Biology and director of USU’s Center for Advanced Nutrition, contributed to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

donut illustration

USU neurobiologist Tim Gilbertson says the body's ability to detect sweet tastes is more complex than previously thought.

Your body’s sugar sensors in sweet taste cells aren’t just on your tongue — they’re in your gut, too, says Utah State University neurobiologist Tim Gilbertson.

Gilbertson contributed to a recent study that confirms your body’s ability to taste sweets is delectably complex and involves more taste sensors than previously thought. He and research colleagues say these findings could be a key step in developing strategies to curb overconsumption.

“We’ve known for a number of years of a specific sweet receptor that allows us to taste sugars and artificial sweeteners,” says Gilbertson, professor in USU’s Department of Biology and director of the university’s Center for Advanced Nutrition. “But we’ve now confirmed additional sensors throughout our digestive and endocrine systems that allow our bodies to detect and absorb dietary sugars.”

Led by Robert Margolskee of the Philadephia-based Monell Chemical Senses Center, the study’s findings appear in the March 8, 2011, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

“Detecting the sweetness of nutritive sugars is one of the most important tasks of our taste cells,” says Margolskee, senior author on the paper. “Many of us eat too much sugar, and to help limit overconsumption, we need to better understand how a sweet taste cell ‘knows’ something is sweet.”

The researchers speculate that one of the body’s sugar sensors — known as the KATP channel — modulates taste cell sensitivity to sugars according to metabolic needs. For example, it may respond to hormonal signals from the intestines or pancreas to make taste cells less responsive to sweets after we’ve eaten a sugary treat and do not need additional energy.

Overconsumption of sugary foods and drinks is a public health concern, as too much of the sweet stuff can contribute to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and other health problems.

“Our research findings are revealing more information about the role these sensors play in controlling our food intake,” Gilbertson says. “The more we know about how sugar is detected in our bodies, the more knowledge we have to come up with ways to reduce overconsumption.”

Related links:

USU Department of Biology

USU College of Science

Contact: Tim Gilbertson, 435-797-7314,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

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