Is Sweetness in the Genes of the Beholder?

  • Share
  • Read Later
It's eight days after Easter and I'm still giddily making my way through a lovingly prepared basket provided by my boyfriend, filled with faux grass and enough sugar to send an entire kindergarten class into shock. The springtime candies — chocolate bunnies, jelly beans and the delightfully ersatz marshmallow Peeps — are an annual rite of passage for me and my dentist. "Oh, hello, Jessica. I see you're here for your traditional post-Easter cleaning?" Others, however tend to view my basket fixation with some concern: How, they seem to be wondering, can a vaguely grown-up person consume so much sugar?

But now, thanks to new research out of Harvard University and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, I may have an excuse for what I euphemistically refer to as my "little sugar problem." In two separate studies, scientists found a gene in mice they believe is responsible for craving sweetness — and it may also exist in humans. If these findings, detailed in the May issue of Nature Genetics, hold true for people, they could help explain why some of us are riveted by a box of saltwater taffy while others can simply turn away.

The gene, called T1R3, has not yet been proven to be the elusive "sweet tooth gene," but scientists plan to test their findings by implanting the gene into mice who seem to lack an interest in sugar water and see if they can stimulate a sweet tooth response. (I think scientists might get a better response if they used a nice chocolate bar, but that's just me.)

If further research supports the T1R3 receptor theory, and the results translate to humans, there could be great developments in the field of sugar. Highly specific taste tests, for example, could yield spectacularly realistic artificial sweeteners: Let's say you've got a new sweetener. If the sweet tooth receptor responds to it, you've hit pay dirt.

Some day, scientists might even be able to switch that receptor gene to an "off" position — a development that could help diabetics and people with weight problems modulate their responses to sugar. It might also mean that people like me (who tend to eat perhaps a bit too much sugar) will have a great new excuse around major holidays. Indulgence, in other words, without guilt: "Oooh, pass the candy dish. Don't give me that look, Mom. I can't help it. My genes are crying out for modified white sugars."

Those happy developments, of course, remain purely hypothetical at this point. In the meantime, I plan to conduct my own experiments in the safety of my living room: Cadbury's crème egg? Definitely sweet. Regular hard-boiled egg? Not sweet. Back to the Cadbury's.