"The two genes, that had been previously associated with alcohol intake, also associated with differences in the perception of ethanol," said study author Dr John E Hayes, of the Sensory Evaluation Center at The Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

"The reason this work is significant is because it fills in this gap, because no one had shown in the lab that the alcohol actually tastes differently depending on which [version of the gene] you have," Hayes said.  

People who find the taste of alcohol less bitter may be more inclined to start drinking, Hayes said, which could have implications for identifying those at risk of becoming problem drinkers.

Humans have 25 genes that encode for taste receptors on the tongue that perceive bitterness, Hayes said. He and his colleagues looked at variants in two of these genes, called TAS2R13 and TAS2R38, in 93 healthy people of European ancestry, as well as variants in a gene called TRPV1, which codes for a receptor involved in perceiving 'burning' or 'stinging' sensations in the mouth.  

The study participants rated the overall intensity of a drink that was 16 percent alcohol, which they sipped and then spit out, and also scored their taste sensations for three minutes after a cotton swab soaked with 50 percent alcohol solution was applied on the back of their tongue.

There were three places in the TAS2R38 gene where a change in the gene's code was associated with bitterness perception, the researchers found.

Everyone carries two copies of the gene; in the study, those with two copies of the most sensitive version of the gene perceived the alcohol to be the most bitter, and those with two copies of the least sensitive version of the gene found it the least bitter, and other individuals fell in between.

People's versions of the TAS2R38 gene have also been linked to their food preferences, and the gene is believed to explain why a minority of people are 'supertasters,' who are more averse to bitter veggies like kale and cabbage, as well as beverages like coffee and grapefruit juice.  

The findings were published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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