Background: Taste buds are assemblies of slender epithelial cells that receive chemical stimuli from the outer (oral) environment. In contrast to the large and well documented information on the morphology of taste buds in adult humans and animals, there are only a few reports on fetal ones, and ultrastructural studies of prenatal human taste buds are lacking completely. Therefore, the present investigation has been carried out to study the taste bud primordium, its morphological changes including synaptogenesis, cell differentiation, and taste pore formation from the time of the onset of taste bud formation around the 8th week until the 15th postovulatory week.
Methods: Taste bud primordia of 42 human embryonic/fetal tongues have been examined by means of transmission electron microscopy.
Results: Nerve fibers approach the lingual epithelium between the 6th and 7th postovulatory week. They penetrate the basal lamina during the 8th week and form synapses with poorly differentiated, elongated, epithelial cells. By the 12th week, more differentiated cell types are seen: 1) electron-dense cells resembling type III cells of the adult taste bud containing large numbers of dense-cored vesicles (80-150 nm in diameter); 2) electron-dark cells with well developed endoplasmic reticulum and many apical mitochondria, being candidates for type II cells. Basally, these cells have foot-like processes containing dense-cored vesicles (120-200 nm in diameter), but they do not synapse to nerve fibers. Type I cells, characterized by apically located dense secretory granules, are not observed. First shallow grooves above the taste bud primordium are found around the 10th week. Untypically differentiated apical cellular processes extend onto the surface. Most of the taste pores develop around the 14th to 15th week. In the taste pit, mucous material is not present during the first 15 weeks of gestation. Synapses between cells and afferent nerve fibers were found by the 8th week, reaching a maximum around the 12th to 13th week.
Conclusions: The early presence of taste bud cells containing dense-cored vesicles suggests an at least dual function of embryonic/ fetal taste buds: First, from the 8th until the 14th week, non-gustatory, paracrine functions should be considered. After the 14th week of gestation, when typical taste pores are present, the taste buds possibly start their gustatory function. Differentiated marginal cells are possibly involved in the formation of the taste pore. The lack of type I cells producing the mucous material in the taste pit indicates that the taste bud has not achieved a fully developed function until the 15th week of gestation.