Natural foods not only contain nutrients, but also non-nutritious and potentially harmful chemicals. Thus, animals need to evaluate food content in order to make adequate feeding decisions.
Here, we investigate the effects of acids on the taste neuron responses and on taste behavior of desirable, nutritious sugars and sugar/bitter compound mixtures in Drosophila melanogaster. Using Ca2+ imaging, we show that acids neither activate sweet nor bitter taste neurons in tarsal taste sensilla. However, they suppress responses to bitter compounds in bitter-sensing neurons. Moreover, acids reverse suppression of bitter compounds exerted on sweet-sensing neurons. Consistent with these observations, behavioral analyses show that bitter compound-mediated inhibition on feeding behavior is alleviated by acids. To investigate the cellular mechanism by which acids modulate these effects, we silenced bitter sensing gustatory neurons. Surprisingly, this intervention had little effect on acid-mediated de-repression of sweet neuron or feeding responses to either sugar/bitter compound mixtures, or sugar/bitter compound/acid mixtures, suggesting two independent pathways by which bitter compounds are sensed.
Our investigations reveal that acids, when presented in dietary relevant concentrations, enhance the perception of sugar/bitter compound mixtures. Drosophila’s natural food sources - fruits and cohabitating yeast - are rich in sugars and acids, but are rapidly colonized by microorganisms, such as fungi, protozoan parasites and bacteria, many of which produce bitter compounds. We propose that acids present in most fruits counteract the inhibitory effects of these bitter compounds during feeding.