The complex code for tasting salt

Flexible signals change the way flies detect salt depending on their diet.

Image credit: Katja Schulz (CC BY 2.0)

Salt is essential for our survival, but too much can kill us. Our taste system has therefore evolved two different pathways to help us maintain balance. Low concentrations (like the salt on our chips) activate a pathway that makes us want to eat. But high concentrations (like the salt in seawater) activate pathways that do the opposite.

The nervous system takes on the role of detecting salt and encoding the information in a way that the brain can use. One specific type of cell detects each of the four other tastes: sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. But salt, with its two sensing pathways, is the exception to this rule. Previous work has examined salt taste responses in flies, but the picture is incomplete.

In flies, one type of taste neuron uses a different signaling mechanism to the others, suggesting that it might play a special role. So here, Jaeger, Stanley et al. asked how fly sensory cells encode salt information for the brain, and what those unusual neurons are for.

Mapping the taste receptor neurons in the tongue-like structure of the fly, the proboscis, revealed that salt information is not restricted to one or two types of cell. In fact, all five types of neurons tested (covering more than 90% of all the taste neurons present in flies) responded to salt in some way. Of these, two ‘low salt’ cell types made the fly want to eat salt, and two ‘high salt’ cell types made the fly want to avoid it. One of these high salt cell types was the unusual taste neuron identified previously. Rather than always encoding high salt as 'bad', the message from this type of cell changed depending on the diet of the fly. Salt-deprived flies ignored the activity of that cell type altogether. This complex way of encoding taste allowed the fly to change its behavior depending on how much salt it needed.

This work opens new questions, like how do the fly's neuronal circuits process this complex salt code? And how do the ‘high salt’ cells achieve their negative effect only when the need for salt is low? Understanding more about this system could lead to a better understanding of why our own brains enjoy salty foods so much.