The diffuse chemosensory system: Exploring the iceberg toward the definition of functional roles

Andrea Sbarbati, Placido Bramanti, Donatella Benati, Flavia Merigo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The diffuse chemosensory system (DCS) is an anatomical structure composed of solitary chemosensory cells (SCCs, also called solitary chemoreceptor cells), which have analogies with taste cells but are not aggregated in buds. The concept of DCS has been advanced, after the discovery that cells similar to gustatory elements are present in several organs. The elements forming the DCS share common morphological and biochemical characteristics with the taste cells located in taste buds of the oro-pharyngeal cavity but they are localized in internal organs. In particular, they may express molecules of the chemoreceptorial cascade (e.g. trans-membrane taste receptors, the G-protein alpha-gustducin, PLCβ2, TRPM5). This article will focus on the mammalian DCS in apparatuses of endodermic origin (i.e. digestive and respiratory systems), which is composed of an enormous number of sensory elements and presents a multiplicity of morphological aspects. Recent research has provided an adequate description of these elements, but the functional role for the DCS in these apparatuses is unknown. The initial findings led to the definition of a DCS structured like an iceberg, with a mysterious " submerged" portion localized in the distal part of endodermic apparatuses. Recent work has focussed on the discovery of this submerged portion, which now appears less puzzling. However, the functional roles of the different cytotypes belonging to the DCS are not well known. Recent studies linked chemosensation of the intraluminal content to local control of absorptive and secretory (exocrine and endocrine) processes. Control of the microbial population and detection of irritants seem to be other possible functions of the DCS. In the light of these new findings, the DCS might be thought to be involved in a wide range of diseases of both the respiratory (e.g. asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis) and digestive apparatuses (absorptive or secretive diseases, dysmicrobism), as well as in systemic diseases (e.g. obesity, diabetes). A description of the functional roles of the DCS might be a first step toward the discovery of therapeutic approaches which target chemosensory mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-89
Number of pages13
JournalProgress in Neurobiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - May 2010


  • Chemoreception
  • Gustducin
  • Solitary chemosensory cell
  • Taste receptor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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