Bitter and sweet tasting molecules: It's complicated
“Bitter” and “sweet” are frequently framed in opposition, both functionally and metaphorically, in regard to affective responses, emotion, and nutrition. This oppositional relationship is complicated by the fact that some molecules are simultaneously bitter and sweet. In some cases, a small chemical modification, or a chirality switch, flips the taste from sweet to bitter. Molecules humans describe as bitter are recognized by a 25-member subfamily of class A G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) known as TAS2Rs. Molecules humans describe as sweet are recognized by a TAS1R2/TAS1R3 heterodimer of class C GPCRs. Here we characterize the chemical space of bitter and sweet molecules: the majority of bitter compounds show higher hydrophobicity compared to sweet compounds, while sweet molecules have a wider range of sizes. Importantly, recent evidence indicates that TAS1Rs and TAS2Rs are not limited to the oral cavity; moreover, some bitterants are pharmacologically promiscuous, with the hERG potassium channel, cytochrome P450 enzymes, and carbonic anhydrases as common off-targets. Further focus on polypharmacology may unravel new physiological roles for tastant molecules.