SCIENCE: A Nobel Prize has been awarded to a UW and Fred Hutch CRC scientist. Awesome!
Two American scientists who discovered how people can smell and recall about 10,000 different odors were awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in the category of physiology or medicine today.
The winners were Dr. Richard Axel, 58, a university professor at Columbia, and Dr. Linda B. Buck, 57, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and University of Washington in Seattle. The two, who will share the $1.3 million award, were cited for a discovery they made in 1991 while working together at Columbia University in Manhattan.
Here is a quote from the email Lee Hartwell -- president and director of the Hutch (also a Nobel Laureate, and a perennial cook at the company picnic) -- sent out today:
I am thrilled to announce that Dr. Linda Buck, a member of our Basic Sciences Division, has won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her groundbreaking work on odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system-the network responsible for our sense of smell.
She shares the prize with Dr. Richard Axel of Columbia University. Their work is the first to define one of our sensory systems in the most detailed manner possible by defining the genes and proteins that control this remarkably complex response. This is a landmark achievement in the study of the nervous system.
The basic principles for recognizing and remembering about 10,000 different odors have long been a mystery. In a series of pioneering studies as a postdoctoral fellow with Axel, Linda clarified how our olfactory system works. She discovered a large gene family, made up of some 1,000 different genes that give rise to an equivalent number of olfactory receptor types. These receptors are located on the olfactory receptor cells, which occupy a small area in the upper part of the lining of the nose and detect the inhaled odorant molecules.
Linda and Richard showed that every single olfactory receptor cell produces one and only one of the odorant receptor genes. Thus, there are as many types of olfactory receptor cells as there are odorant receptors. Most odors are composed of multiple odorant molecules, and each odorant molecule activates several odorant receptors. This leads to a combinatorial code forming an "odorant pattern" - somewhat like the colors in a patchwork quilt or in a mosaic. This is the basis for our ability to recognize and form memories of approximately 10,000 different odors. To read more about Linda's work, visit the Nobel Web site at http://nobelprize.org.
Linda joined the center in 2002 after 11 years as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and the recipient of the Gairdner Award, the Unilever Science Award, the Louis Vuitton-Moet Hennessy Science for Art Prize, the R. H. Wright Award in olfactory research and the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for work in basic medical research.