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The Beer-Smell Gene

Time magazine’s health section had a recent article — The Beer-Smell Gene and Other Ways DNA Drives Our Senses — about how are sense of smell functions, and that not everybody smells things the same way, in the same way that the color blue may look slightly differently to some people (especially those who are color blind). Of course, that’s something any experienced beer judge could tell you. One of the things that you learn, especially when you judge with the same group of people many times, is that everybody’s tolerances and sensitivities to different aromas varies widely. I, for example, am quite tolerant of diacetyl and have to be hit over the head with it to notice it. Mercaptans, on the other hand — that hoppy cat piss — I’m so sensitive of I only need get the glass near my nose to detect it. And we all have those quirks. I’ve judged on the Celebrator Beer News tasting panel with the same group of people for over ten years now, and I can safely predict what my fellow panelists will say about many of the beers we taste.

But what this new study (in the journal Current Biology) found is that “our senses are intimately connected to our DNA, and small variations in our genes can determine whether we are partial to the smell of blue cheese, or can’t stand the taste of cilantro.” The study itself noted. “Analysis of genotype frequencies across human populations implies that variation in sensitivity for these odors is widespread.” This suggests, not surprisingly, that what we find in beer-tasting is true across the broad spectrum of how food smells and tastes, so that in a very real sense none of us taste the same food (or drink) in exactly the same way. Clearly, as a group things do taste similarly to most of us, but there appears to be enough variance that we can’t ever say universally how something should or does taste.

What’s new in this study is that scientists are now able to trace such predispositions to our genomes and are finding patterns based on our DNA and genetic makeup. Interestingly, is also found that “sensitivity is heritable,” meaning how things taste to you is likely similar to your parents and other members of your family. I also love this quote from the abstract, which sums it up neatly. “[E]ach participant possessed one of many possible combinations of sensitivities for these odors, supporting the notion that everyone experiences their own unique ‘flavor world.'” The lead scientist on the study, Jeremy McRae, notes “that when people sit down to eat a meal, they each experience it in their own personalized way.” Which may also explain why I (and presumably you, too) have a taste for beer, while some people simply do not.

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