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Expands fundamental understanding
of taste and smell
A leader in scientific discovery, the Monell Chemical Senses Center expands our fundamental understanding of taste and smell – the chemical senses – through research, training, and communication.
The Center’s cutting–edge research identifies the underlying mechanisms of taste and smell and probes their involvement in appetite, nutrition, and disease to benefit human health and well-being.
In its role as a nonprofit, Monell provides a comprehensive resource for information and serves as an unbiased authority on the science of taste and smell.
In the 1960s, very little was understood about the essential mechanisms and functions of what were then thought to be the “minor senses” – taste and smell. In 1967, the Ambrose Monell Foundation contributed $1 million to establish a multidisciplinary scientific institute dedicated to basic research on these senses.
Almost 50 years later, the Monell Center’s research has dramatically increased scientific understanding of taste, smell, and chemesthesis (the third chemical sense, which mediates ‘chemical feel,’ such as the cooling of menthol, the tingle of carbonation or the burn of chili peppers). The Center’s scientific discoveries contribute significantly to a growing awareness of the central role that these senses play in human health.
The Monell Foundation continues to strongly and consistently support the Center’s basic and clinical research mission, maintaining its role as a fundamental driving force in the Monell Center’s growth and development.
From the start, Monell’s science has been based on an explicit multidisciplinary approach. This is by necessity, as a comprehensive understanding of these senses requires multiple disciplines and methodologies.
The senses of taste and smell detect chemical stimuli from food, from other organisms, and from the environment. Chemical information then is transduced by biological structures into nerve impulses. The neural information is in turn processed by the brain to form sensations and perceptions that can alter behavior and ultimately, human health.
To unravel these complex interwoven processes, the Center is structured to encourage collaboration among scientists from diverse backgrounds. The Monell Center has no departmental organization; offices and laboratories are not segregated by discipline; and most importantly, the staff is imbued with the ideal of multidisciplinary interaction.
Research involves both internal interactions and an international network of colleagues from academic, government, and corporate research facilities, bringing extraordinary depth to Monell’s science.
Representative disciplines: Interaction brings insight, advances discovery
- sensory psychology
- organic chemistry
- cognitive neuroscience
- molecular biology
- cell biology
- developmental psychobiology
The Monell Center’s ‘product’ is fundamental scientific knowledge. Research findings are communicated through journal publications and presentations at academic and educational conferences. The Center’s scientists have contributed thousands of scientific journal articles and book chapters to advance scientific understanding of taste and smell.
Monell research also is regularly cited in the international news media. The Center’s studies often have relevance to health and quality of life, providing novel insights to improve lives in many ways.
The Monell Center has helped to define the science of taste and smell. Monell’s world-class scientists are at the forefront of inquiry across varied levels of investigation.
Among the Center’s unique areas of expertise:
- Human sensory testing across the lifespan using innovative psychophysical and physiological techniques
- Integration of human sensory perception with molecular biology
- Pioneering techniques to biopsy and maintain living human taste and smell receptor cells for human species-specific study
- Experiential, physiological and genetic determinants of flavor and food preferences across the lifespan
- Stem cell biology to regenerate dysfunctional taste and smell receptor cells
- Focus on taste and smell receptors in extra-oral sites and their relation to health
- Odor communication in health and disease
The Center’s research advances fundamental knowledge of taste and smell. In the process, Monell’s scientific findings also uncover solutions to pressing problems related to health, the environment and more. Monell scientists helped to identify the sweet taste receptor, a breakthrough that paved the way to current inquiries into how to stimulate, manipulate, enhance, inhibit, and create synergy of sweet taste. In other areas, ongoing Monell research is:
- Demonstrating the key role of prenatal and early postnatal experience in shaping life-long taste, odor, and flavor preferences.
- Utilizing advanced stem cell biology techniques to regenerate smell receptors and develop treatments for smell loss.
Analyzing the genetics of taste to identify the salt taste receptor, knowledge needed to develop effective salt enhancers and modifiers and help reduce sodium consumption.
Identifying how body odors can be used for the early non-invasive detection and diagnosis of cancer, infectious disease, and tissue damage.
- Determining how genetic variation in taste and smell receptors influences flavor perception, food choice, nutrition, and health across the lifespan.
- Pioneering studies of odortypes, genetically-determined olfactory markers of individual identity.
- Revealing how short and long-term exposure to air-borne chemicals alter sensory perception and health.
- Probing the mechanism and function of taste and smell receptors located outside the mouth and nose.
Although Monell encourages an interdisciplinary approach, its research can be divided for descriptive purposes into six overlapping programs:
- The Program in Sensation and Perception is at the forefront in developing and using accurate human sensory measures to explore taste and smell perception across the lifespan, from prenatal to infancy to childhood to the aging. Much of the research speaks directly to questions related to palatability and the development of food preferences.
- The Program in Neuroscience and Molecular Biology is a world leader in the use of human sensory tissue to investigate the underlying mechanisms of taste and smell. Molecular genetic studies identify heritable influences on chemosensory detection and perception, both in the mouth and in extra-oral sites throughout the body. Other work focuses on identifying taste and smell receptor cells and how these specialized cells encode information.
- The Program in Environmental and Occupational Health studies the response of humans to environmental odors and irritants, such as those emitted by industry and agriculture. Its scientists determine the effects of exposure to air-borne chemicals on human perception, cognition and physiology.The Nutrition and Metabolism Program studies the physiology and biochemistry of appetite, which is closely linked to taste and smell. The research is clarifying the role that taste and smell play in the development and maintenance of hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and other food-related diseases.
- The Program in Health and Well-Being concentrates on how humans respond to tastes and odors from a clinical perspective, with a focus on taste and smell disorders. A new initiative focuses on identifying the causes of anosmia – smell loss – with the ultimate goal of identifying new treatments for this invisible disability that affects millions worldwide. Other studies explore noninvasive disease detection using changes in human body odors.
- The Program in Chemical Ecology and Communication explores the production of odors by animals and humans for communication and reproductive purposes. Research with the USDA seeks to identify non-lethal methods to control animal pest species that threaten agricultural and aquatic food crops.
An integral part of Monell’s mission involves preparation of the next generation of scientists:
- Monell’s strong post-doctoral program attracts talented young scientists from a wide range of disciplines. Approximately 20 post-doctoral fellows are trained at the Center each year. Monell fellows go on to contribute to scientific advancement through work in academia, industry and government.
- The Center’s highly successful Monell Science Apprenticeship Program (MSAP) for high school and college students is now entering its 34th year. The program aims to stimulate interest in STEM careers among demographic groups underrepresented in science, including females, racial and ethnic minorities, and the economically disadvantaged. MSAP enrolls approximately 25 students each summer.
Originally established as a division of the University of Pennsylvania, the Monell Center separated from Penn ten years later to become an independent nonprofit research institute. Today, the Center’s major source of funding comes from competitive government research grants, primarily through the National Institutes of Health. Other sources of funding include corporate sponsorship, individual philanthropy, and foundations.
The Monell Foundation is the Center’s largest private supporter, contributing valuable assistance across the breadth of the Center’s operation, from the recruitment of preeminent scientists to the creation of new laboratories.
Since its inception, the Monell Center has been at the vanguard of successful academic-industry partnerships. The Center was established as a joint venture involving academic, government, and industry scientists, at a time when such collaborations were rare.
Today, over 40 companies from around the world help support Monell’s basic research through the Center’s Corporate Sponsorship program. Companies that support Monell are involved in a diverse range of enterprises, ranging from foods and beverages to fragrances to personal care products, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, pet care products and more.
Annual support from corporate sponsors is unrestricted, permitting the Center to initiate new programs and fund junior scientists as they begin their careers. In return, sponsors receive access to research expertise and unbiased cutting-edge scientific information via educational and consulting opportunities.
The Monell Center is led by Director and President Robert F. Margolskee, MD, PhD. A pioneer in the use of molecular biology to study cellular mechanisms of taste, Dr. Margolskee has been responsible for major advances in the field of taste biology. Most recently, his research has focused on the mechanisms and functions of taste receptors located in the gastrointestinal tract and other organs throughout the body. These extra-oral receptors are increasingly implicated in regulation of food intake, nutrition, metabolism, and hormone release.
The Center’s third Director, Dr. Margolskee succeeded Gary K. Beauchamp, PhD, who led the Center from 1990 to 2014. A world-renowned expert on taste and smell possessing broad expertise across a variety of disciplines, Dr. Beauchamp also serves on the Board of the Ambrose Monell Foundation .
Indicative of its deep commitment to the Center, a member of the Ambrose Monell Foundation has always been a part of the Center’s governance. Currently, Ambrose K. Monell sits on the Monell Center Board of Directors.
In addition, many eminent scientists, government leaders, academicians and business executives have served the Center on the Board and as members of advisory committees. Dwight Riskey, PhD, retired Senior Vice President, Consumer & Customer Insights at PepsiCo and current principal of Riskey Business Solutions, LLC, serves as Board Chair.
Early in the Center’s history, founding Director Morley Kare said, “Monell itself is a scientific experiment.” The results of this experiment have surpassed hopes and expectations. From a fledgling organization, Monell has grown to be a major force in scientific research.
Monell discoveries increase fundamental understanding of taste and smell to address critical present-day issues, including:
- nutrition and diet
- obesity and metabolic disease
- population regulation
- disease detection
- pediatric health
- homeland security
- environmental chemical exposure
Other organizations and individuals conduct outstanding basic and clinical research on taste and olfaction. However, no other institution or group of scientists has the depth and breadth of Monell’s multidisciplinary approach.
There still is much to learn about these primal senses that influence our lives in so many powerful ways. Looking to the future, the Monell Center will continue to pursue its groundbreaking exploration of taste and smell, building knowledge and providing opportunities to improve the lives of human and other animal species.