Evolution of taste and solitary chemoreceptor cell systems

Brain Behav Evol. 1997;50(4):234-43. doi: 10.1159/000113337.


Vertebrates possess four distinct chemosensory systems distinguishable on the basis of structure, innervation and utilization: olfaction, taste, solitary chemoreceptor cells (SCC) and the common chemical sense (free nerve endings). Of these, taste and the SCC sense rely on secondary receptor cells situated in the epidermis and synapsing on sensory nerve fibers innervating them near their base. The SCC sense occurs in anamniote aquatic craniates, including hagfish, and may be used for feeding or predator avoidance. The sense of taste occurs only in vertebrates and is always utilized for feeding. The SCC system achieves a high degree of specialization in two teleosts: sea robins (Prionotus) and rocklings (Ciliata). In sea robins, SCCs are abundant on the three anterior fin rays of the pectoral fin which are free of fin webbing and are used in active exploration of the substrate. Behavioral and physiological studies show that this SCC system responds to feeding cues and drives feeding behavior. It is connected centrally like a somatosensory system. In contrast, the specialized SCC system of rocklings occurs on the anterior dorsal fin which actively samples the surrounding water. This system responds to mucus substances and may serve as a predator detector. The SCC system in rocklings is connected centrally like a gustatory system. Taste buds contain multiple receptor cell types, including a serotonergic Merkel-like cell. Taste receptor cells respond to nutritionally relevant substances. Due to similarities between SCCs and one type of taste receptor cell, the suggestion is made that taste buds may be compound sensory organs that include some cells related to SCCs and others related to cutaneous Merkel cells. The lack of taste buds in hagfish and their presence in all vertebrates may indicate that the phylogenetic development of taste buds coincided with the elaboration of head structures at the craniate-vertebrate transition.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / anatomy & histology*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Phylogeny
  • Smell / physiology
  • Species Specificity
  • Spinal Cord / anatomy & histology
  • Taste / physiology*
  • Taste Buds / anatomy & histology*
  • Vertebrates / anatomy & histology*