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Taste receptors help us distinguish sweet from sour and savory from bitter, but they aren't just on the tongue. Taste buds were found to play a key role in male fertility. If yours aren't working properly, your sperm might be suffering.

You are probably aware that many factors impact a man's fertility, positively or negatively. Exercise and a healthy diet assist normal sperm production, while smoking, drinking, and overheating can cause sub-fertility. A guy's age, weight, and chronic health conditions (such as diabetes) all say something about his fertility. But his taste buds?

Scientists recently discovered that genes that enable men to distinguish sweet from savory flavors on the tongue are also linked to healthy sperm production!

"Taste proteins are really important in male reproduction. We really didn't expect that," researcher Bedrich Mosinger from Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia said.

The proteins called taste receptors help humans and animals differentiate tastes such as sweet, sour, salty and bitter. What is interesting is that scientists found that these proteins weren't just present on the tongue, but also in the stomach, intestines, pancreas, lungs and... in the brain!

What are taste proteins doing in these body parts? Until now, scientists had no answer to this question. The researchers who worked on this study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, decided to concentrate on the taste receptors that enable us to experience sweet and savory tastes to find out what other hidden roles they could be playing.

They found out that one of these taste receptors, called TAS1R3, was present in the testicles and sperm of mice, along with GNAT3, a molecule that enables the taste receptor to send signals to the brain.

The scientists then genetically engineered mice to miss the mouse version of the TAS1R3 taste receptor, while giving them the human version instead. The next step was to add a drug that inhibits the human taste receptor to the diet of these mice. While the drug, clofibrate, remained in their system, they were infertile. The mice saw a rapid return to fertility once clofibrate was removed from their diet.

Sperm quality and quantity had both been affected by the drug because the taste protein stopped working, in other words. Yet, no long-term effects were seen after scientists "switched the taste protein off".

We can draw some interesting conclusions from the experiment. First off, taste receptors do a whole lot more than allow us to taste sweet, sour, savory and bitter tastes. They clearly play an important role in reproduction in male mice, and there is every chance that the same holds true for male humans.

That in turn opens the door for exciting new medical developments, including a male birth control method based on inhibiting taste proteins, and fertility treatments that involve stimulating these same proteins.

The scientists did not find a similar link between female fertility and taste receptors — concluding that this is a very male-specific process.

Male fertility has incidentally been declining on a global scale. Could this have something to do with clofibrate, which belongs to the fibrate family?

Fibrates are often prescribed to treat disorders like high blood cholesterol and high triglyceride levels, and can also be found in weed killers. Fibrates are everywhere, and they could be making you or your partner infertile. 

While it will certainly take a while to develop beneficial treatments based on the new knowledge that taste proteins play an important role in male reproduction, some couples may be able to benefit from this study even now. Have you been trying to conceive a baby without success, and are you by any chance on fibrates? Now could be the time to talk to your doctor about the possibility that they are making you infertile, and to devise an alternative treatment regimen.