Saturday, October 18, 2008


We had dinner last night in one of favorite local eateries, a wonderful little Mexican place in a neighboring town. When I sat down, my eye was drawn immediately to my sort of dish -- one with a rich sauce combining the tang of tomatillos with the zing of cilantro. I picked well.

I really do love cilantro. Despite an extensive garden growing up, it was only in my adult life that I encountered this herb. I've been making up ever since. It works well in so many situations, not only in Mexican but also a lot of Asian cooking. The excellent Tibetan buffet in Central Square uses it extensively, particularly in a salad that works equally well before the meal as after, with the bite of cilantro contrasting with sweet cherry tomatoes and mango chunks. I even have a pot of it on my desk, which I share with my neighboring cilantrophiles.

However, not everyone loves cilantro. And it isn't just some folks might not like that little edge -- no, for some it tastes awful. Rather than some herbal bite, they taste soap. Or weirder. What other herb has its own

Is it genetic? Alas, there has been a dearth of research on cilantro tasting -- indeed, it doesn't seem to rate an OMIM entry. There is a compound called PTC which is known to untastable by some, including this correspondent, and is genetically linked (my father can taste it; haven't surveyed the rest of the clan). With the help of some research by one of my office neighbors (and fellow cilantro fan), I did learn that 23andMe includes cilantro taste in their questionnaire. It isn't clear whether the other public and private genome projects are tracking this key phenotype.

Okay, I jest a bit. But while the ability to taste cilantro, or PTC, or the host of other innocuous traits which are staples of grade school genetics labs (e.g. widow's peak, hitchhiker's thumb, attached earlobes, etc) aren't exactly critical to understand, they will be interesting to understand. Widow's peak doesn't change someone's life, but to understand it is to understand a bit more about how patterns are laid out. The sciences of smell and taste have advanced tremendously over my lifetime; a whole new taste was found! Identification of smell receptors (recognized by a Nobel) and taste receptors have given great insights -- but we still understand very little.

Are there practical applications for smell & taste research? Of course. But to me the most interesting part is to figure out how it works. PTC doesn't seem so complicated, as the test paper doesn't have any flavor other than paper. But cilantro seems like a much more complicated, and interesting, question. Why does it taste bad rather than just not taste?

Is there an underlying soapiness which I just don't taste? In this case, tasters have a receptor for the magic compound (which is what?) and non-tasters simply lack it. Or does a different receptor bind the compound in tasters, in which case they have a gain-of-function mutation? Or, perhaps they have a partial loss of function -- there are a number of known compounds with concentration-dependent odor, probably due to differential binding to different receptors. In other words, at low concentrations these compounds bind to high-affinity receptors (yielding one perception) and at high concentrations some additional one Or, perhaps a partial gain of function in the non-tasters -- the same model could apply.

No, I wouldn't recommend basing an R01 application on the science of cilantro taste. Nor is it likely to tease a few million from some VCs as the core of a business plan. Cilantro haters will probably never have the option of genetic therapy to alter their perception. But it is still an interesting scientific question, and I look forward to personal genomics shedding some light on it.

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