Membrane-bound chemoreception of bitter bile acids and peptides is mediated by the same subset of bitter taste receptors

Silvia Schaefer, Florian Ziegler, Tatjana Lang, Alexandra Steuer, Antonella Di Pizio, Maik Behrens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The vertebrate sense of taste allows rapid assessment of the nutritional quality and potential presence of harmful substances prior to ingestion. Among the five basic taste qualities, salty, sour, sweet, umami, and bitter, bitterness is associated with the presence of putative toxic substances and elicits rejection behaviors in a wide range of animals including humans. However, not all bitter substances are harmful, some are thought to be health-beneficial and nutritious. Among those compound classes that elicit a bitter taste although being non-toxic and partly even essential for humans are bitter peptides and l-amino acids. Using functional heterologous expression assays, we observed that the 5 dominant human bitter taste receptors responsive to bitter peptides and amino acids are activated by bile acids, which are notorious for their extreme bitterness. We further demonstrate that the cross-reactivity of bitter taste receptors for these two different compound classes is evolutionary conserved and can be traced back to the amphibian lineage. Moreover, we show that the cross-detection by some receptors relies on “structural mimicry” between the very bitter peptide l-Trp-Trp-Trp and bile acids, whereas other receptors exhibit a phylogenetic conservation of this trait. As some bile acid-sensitive bitter taste receptor genes fulfill dual-roles in gustatory and non-gustatory systems, we suggest that the phylogenetic conservation of the rather surprising cross-detection of the two substance classes could rely on a gene-sharing-like mechanism in which the non-gustatory function accounts for the bitter taste response to amino acids and peptides.

Original languageEnglish
Article number217
JournalCellular and Molecular Life Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2024


  • Amino acid
  • Bile acid
  • Bitter taste receptor
  • Calcium-mobilization assay
  • Evolution
  • Molecular modeling


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