Project 2.1.2

Genetics of odour perception and wine preferences

Project summary

There is wide variation in human perception of single aroma compounds and mixtures of aroma compounds. The link between sensory perception and overall preference is complex, influenced by exposure and learning as well as by genetic differences in individuals’ ability to perceive specific compounds. Environmentally induced changes to gene expression from exposure to different foods/flavours might also be a factor. Identifying the olfactory receptor genes that relate to the ability to perceive important odorants such as rotundone (black pepper, to which ~25% of the population are anosmic and unable to detect), beta-ionone (raspberry, ~40% anosmic), or chlorophenols (chemical/plastic, ~20% anosmic), would open up the means to determine relative proportions of populations who respond to specific wine flavours, and better understand the link from perception to preference.

Current technologies allow routine, rapid and low cost genetic sequencing of individuals, and it is likely that in the near future most people will have their genetic sequence tested for medical purposes. This project will involve testing individuals for sensitivity to different aroma compounds, and analysing the data in the context of their genetic sequence data to identify relevant odour receptor genes. Close collaboration with genome sequencing experts in the USA – who can provide access to individuals for whom a genome sequence is already available and undertake complicated bioinformatic analysis – will be an essential part of conducting this project in a robust, cost effective manner.

Eventually, linking genes to specific odorants could open up a straightforward means of screening winemakers or sensory panellists for particular tasks such as taint assessment, as well as recruiting consumers for preference tests with appropriate backgrounds. More importantly, understanding the proportion of a population that have similar sensitivities will provide opportunities for wine producers to target wine styles to particular markets.

Project Team

Leigh Francis
Patricia Williamson
Anthony Borneman
Markus Herderich