Our noses are loaded with bitter taste receptors, but they're not helping us taste or smell lunch. Ever since researchers at the University of Iowa came to this conclusion in 2009, scientists have been looking for an explanation for why the receptors are there. One speculation is that they warn us of noxious substances. But they may play another role too: helping to fight infections.
In addition to common bitter compounds, the nose's bitter receptors also react to chemicals that bacteria use to communicate. That got Noam Cohen, a University of Pennsylvania otolaryngologist, wondering whether the receptors detect pathogens that cause sinus infections. In a 2012 study, his team found that bacterial chemicals elicited two bacteria-fighting responses in cells from the nose and upper airways: movement of the cells' projections that divert noxious things out of the body and release of nitric oxide, which kills bacteria.
The findings may have clinical applications. When Cohen recently analyzed bitter taste receptor genes from his patients with chronic sinus infections, he noticed that practically none were supertasters, even though supertasters make up an estimated 25 percent of the population. Supertasters are extra sensitive to bitter compounds in foods. People are either supertasters or nontasters, or somewhere in between, reflecting the genes they carry for a receptor known as T2R38.
Cohen thinks supertasters react vigorously to bacterial bitter compounds in the nose and are thus resistant to sinus infections. In nontasters the reaction is weaker, bacteria thrive and sinus infections ensue. These results suggest that a simple taste test could be used to predict who is at risk for recurrent infections and might need more aggressive medical treatment.