Physiology or Medicine

Article excerpt

In recognition of more than a decade of pioneering exploration of the sense of smell, two Americans received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 4. The researchers, Richard Axel of Columbia University and Linda Buck of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, will share the nearly $1.4 million prize.

The award largely honors the pair's close collaboration on a paper published in Cell in 1991 and their continuing independent efforts. Before the paper appeared, scientists knew little about the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the olfactory system, which transmits information on odorant molecules from the nose to the brain. Anatomical studies had shown that olfactory neurons project hairlike cilia into the nasal cavity. However, researchers were unable to pinpoint olfactory receptors on these cilia or explain how such receptors might work.

According to Kerry Resster, an associate professor of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta and Buck's first graduate research assistant in the mid-1990s, the olfactory system had been largely ignored by sensory scientists who were more apt to explore the mechanisms behind other senses such as sight and hearing. The reasons were twofold: The sense of smell is the most expendable of human senses. In addition, says Ressler, "there was a lack of good tools for how to dissect this system in the right way."

At the time of the Cell paper, Buck was a postdoctoral fellow in Axel's lab at Columbia. Taking advantage Of a then-novel DNA-copying technique known as polymerase chain reaction, the colleagues searched for genes that encode olfactory receptors in rats. …