Sweet Taste of Heavy Water

  • 22 April 2021
    4:00 PM


Prof. Pavel Jungwirth

Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the CAS, Czech Republic

"We aim at gaining molecular level understanding of biological processes involving ions using computer simulations in close contact with spectroscopic experiments.

Using molecular dynamics simulations and quantum chemical methods we are attempting to establish the mechanisms of ion-protein interactions responsible for the salting out (Hofmeister) series and beyond. Applications of our research range from influencing protein aggregation, precipitation, or denaturation and controlling enzymatic activity to establishing properties of phospholipid bilayers in the presence of ions. One of the key aims within the latter subject is to establish molecular principles governing the action of calcium ions involved in membrane fusion and cationic cell penetrating peptides (important, e.g., for novel ways of drug delivery to cells).

Our related research activities concern electron solvation pertinent to radiation chemistry and DNA damage. And in our free time we entertain ourselves by "balcony experiments" involving, for example, explosions of alkali metals in water, which also allows us to connect to general public and popularize science."

See more information at Prof. Jungwirth´s research group website.

Hosted by

Robert Vácha

About the lecture

Heavy water (D2O) differs from normal water (H2O) by H-D isotopic substitution only and, as such, should not be chemically distinct. Leaving aside a trivial 10% change in density due to the doubled mass of D compared to H, differences in properties of D2O vs H2O, such as pH or melting and boiling points, are indeed very small. These differences are solely due to nuclear quantum effects, namely, changes in zero-point vibrations, which lead to a slightly stronger hydrogen bonding in D2O than in H2O. Despite the fact that the two isotopes are nominally chemically identical, we have shown conclusively that humans can distinguish by taste (which is based on chemical sensing) between H2O and D2O with the latter having a distinct sweet taste.

In our work, we complement taste experiments on human subjects with tests on mice and on HEK 293T cells transfected with the human sweet taste receptor TAS1R2/TAS1R3, and with molecular modelling. The results consistently point to the fact that the sweet taste of heavy water is mediated in humans by the TAS1R2/TAS1R3 receptor. Future studies should be able to elucidate the precise sites and mechanisms of action, as well as the reason why D2O activates TAS1R2/TAS1R3 in particular, resulting in sweet (but not other) taste. 

While clearly not a practical sweetener, heavy water provides a glimpse into the wide-open chemical space of sweet molecules. Since heavy water has been implicated in medical procedures, the finding that it can elicit responses of the sweet taste receptor, which is located not only on the tongue but also in other tissues of the human body, represents an important information for clinicians and their patients. Moreover, due to wide application of D2O in chemical structure determination, chemists will benefit from being aware of the present observations. Finally, it is fascinating that one can actually taste nuclear quantum effects.

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Original paper: Sweet taste of heavy water. Natalie Ben Abu, Philip E. Mason, Hadar Klein, Nitzan Dubovski, Yaron Ben Shoshan-Galeczki, Einav Malach, Veronika Pražienková, Lenka Maletínská, Carmelo Tempra, Victor Cruces Chamorro, Josef Cvačka, Maik Behrens, Masha Y. Niv and Pavel Jungwirth. Communications Biology 2021, in press.

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