Flavor-testing mice work for kernels, point to more options
By MATTHEW WEAVER
Mice may help your whole-grain muffins taste better.
Researchers are using the rodents to help identify flavor genes in wheat. Western Wheat Quality Laboratory director Craig Morris and Washington State University animal science associate professor Derek McLean recently concluded an initial study of mouse preference for several varieties of wheat.
Morris and McLean set up a system in which 15 laboratory mice were given two different grains with the idea that they would prefer one over the other.
The study may help identify flavor genes, Morris said. In trying to identify what he calls the "yummy and yucky" genes, he said any class of wheat could be explored.
Once the flavor gene is identified, wheat breeders could transfer it to any class or variety, he said.
Wheat is typically bred for farmers, millers and bakers, but not for flavor, Morris said.
"It's been largely ignored," he said. "We've never consciously tried to say, let's make this wheat more nutritious or taste better."
With the national emphasis on human health, USDA and other programs are encouraging increased use of whole grains, which requires the use of bran. If the bran imparts a bitter taste, consumers won't like it, Morris said.
As companies move to increase bran and whole grains, the subject of flavor and taste keeps coming up, he said.
Morris said flavor work would require a sensory panel using people trained to detect and quantify bitter, salty, sour or sweet characteristics from a scientific standpoint. But there's really no way anyone could afford to have a paid sensory panel to help breed a better-tasting wheat, he said.
If mice are found to have a preference, Morris said researchers would be able to come back with a list of the molecular differences between wheats, one of which might be linked to flavor. He could also take the narrowed-down results to a trained sensory panel to see if it detects a difference.
"It opens up multiple avenues of further research," he said.
The first study using the mice has been completed, documenting the preference for soft wheat. Morris said the data have been analyzed and a scientific paper submitted.
The mice preferred wheat over their standard laboratory food pellets, and preferred soft wheat over hard wheat, possibly due to kernel texture, he said.
The next phase is to take what's been learned about mouse management and try to conduct what is called Quantitative Trail Locus mapping, which often involves 200 types of wheat.
Morris would have to determine how to present mice with a sample of each type to find out their preferences.
McLean believes the collaboration between USDA and the university for innovative work is important. He expects results could be seen within a few years that impact farmers.
"In theory, if we had the money, we could have the study done in six months," Morris said. "It's not like it's a two-decade long process."
The entire initial project cost less than $5,000 with labor, Morris said, noting he used laboratory operating capital.
To explore it further, he estimates he would require sufficient quantities of the wheat and about $20,000 to $30,000 to cover costs of ramping up the project.
How does a mouse's sense of taste compare to a human's?
"That's the $64 question," Morris said. "I don't know if it's a leap of faith, but that's one of the bases for why this would work."
McLean said mice are similar to people.
"Mice like fats. They prefer cheese and peanut butter -- just like people," he said.