What motivates students to participate in a project such as "Tastes are different - genes too!"?
For scientific reasons, it is very exciting to imagine or even invent new things. For all of us, it was something that we had not yet experienced. We are able to escape, so to speak, the everyday school day and throw ourselves into genetic and biotechnology. Each team member was able to introduce and implement his or her own ideas.
Aside from each team member’s fascination with science, the project theme was the icing on the cake: are genes responsible for humans’ different perceptions of taste? The different tasters’ reactions when tasting our various bitter solutions remain memorable: one taster puckered at the smallest concentration of the bitter substance, while another could not even taste a concentration 100-times stronger. The subsequent analysis in the laboratory was both tricky and sensational. We had the opportunity to work with high-tech equipment that is not normally accessible to students. It was also fascinating to follow the process from the saliva sample to the DNA to the tracking of the point mutations in the high-tech laboratory of the school through the DNA probes and qPRC. From over 400 (!) human DNA samples, we analyzed three point mutations (so-called SNPs) from one gene, which is responsible for the taste perception of bitterness. We asked whether is it possible to link this analysis to the taste perception of the testers, who tried the sweetener stevia and the chokeberry (aronia). Highly motivated and with a common goal, we threw ourselves into our work.
A part of the project was to develop our own recipe for our series of tests and we had no idea how much would go wrong. We went through several variations of the recipe until we could let our homemade product be tasted with confidence. In the meantime, we had already had some requests for our recipe: the combination of two “miracle plants” - the healthy, but bitter aronia and the calorie-free, natural sweetener of the stevia plant - precisely meets the demand of the modern, health-conscious consumer.
We had the feeling that our team could accomplish something big. Many members of the team rose to the challenge. We were motivated by the mutual recognition of the work; our common goal even spurred on students who were at times less motivated.
What could our project bring to business or society?
The thought is intriguing and scary at the same time: to use genes to determine whether someone will like a food product or not. We find ourselves at the end of the decade, where the complete sequencing of human DNA has become very fast and cost-effective. The 1000 Genomes Project is nearly complete (see inset). In the foreseeable future, it could be possible for food producers to calculate the percentage of the public that will enjoy a product before it is even released. They could choose a specific flavor that matches the genotype of a targeted group of consumers. Obliquely, there are also ideas of “design aromas” that are tailored to the taste receptors of the tongue. Whether these are desirable remains is to be seen; however, there are already biotechology companies doing research in this field. For example, one could look for bitter inhibitors for artificial sweeteners and create aromatic substances that can lead people to believe that it is sugar, because they match the same taste receptors.
Our own genetic makeup is certainly the most private information that we can have, and yet hardly anyone is aware of this fact. We noticed this in many of our conversations with people in our sample collection. We decided that our project should also help to raise awareness of genetic data protection. Some members of our team became almost “missionaries” for this cause.
The 1000 Genome Project: at the end of 2008 an international association of scientists was formed with the goal of collecting the complete genome sequence of about 1000 people from around the world. The project is supposed to be completed in 2012, at which time the data will be available for research around the world. So far, about 15 million SNPs have been discovered.