A Matter of Taste

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The latest display at Denver Museum of Nature and Science goes beyond just interactive- the focus of the display is entirely on the viewer. The Taste Lab, a fixture in the back of the larger, permanent exhibit Expedition Health at the DMNS, is rotating through a series of studies on the genetics of taste which require the help of you and your family.

The current study, which opened in November under the supervision of Dr. Nicole Garneau, looks at umami, the fifth and least well known taste. This taste is most easily described as being savory, but if that doesn’t sum it up well enough, that’s what the lab is for. In addition to teaching though, the Taste Lab also needs your help.

Dr. Garneau and the Taste Lab are trying to determine how one’s genetics play into one’s ability to sense umami, and are generally studying the sense of taste. They are looking for connections based on familial relationships, race, gender, and other factors, which can be ascertained through participation in the study.

The interactive activities start by gauging one’s personal sense of umami and the scale on which certain flavors and sensations are felt for the individual person. Then, after a briefing on how to collect your own data (it involves nose plugs), one must try a series of concentrations of umami and place those sensations on a scale that is now weighted based off your personal sense of umami.

These reactions are all recorded on iPads that the lab provides, and cannot be influenced by those around one; the iPads are shielded to allow data to remain private. The collected data is contacted with family members and others who participate in the study to determine if there is genetic influence on the ability to taste umami, and if this is affected by variables like gender and race.

In addition to needed data from the community, the Taste Lab is also operated by the community. Some of the people who run the tests and teach others about taste have, like Dr. Garneau, studied genetics in twisty school. However, many of these people are from completely different backgrounds with one common factor: they’re all interested in science. To volunteer you must be over sixteen and go through some training, and the opportunity is available to anyone sufficiently interested in science and taste.

Like volunteering opportunities, the study is open to anyone, though participation has a minimum age of eight (minors must be accompanied by a parent/guardian). It is optimal for families to attend together, but anyone can participate to learn more about their body, and to help out scientists from the community.