Sense of Smell Wins Nobel Prize
Oct 4, 2004 -- Two American investigators Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck have received the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on "odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system" -- the sense of smell.
In 1991 Axel and Buck jointly discovered a very large family of about one thousand genes for odorant receptors. They have since worked independently and have in elegant, often parallel, studies they have clarified the olfactory system from the molecular level to the organization of the cells.
The sense of smell has long remained the most enigmatic of our senses. The basic principles for recognizing and remembering about 10,000 different odors have not been understood. Drs. Axel and Buck have "solved this problem and in a series of pioneering studies clarified how our olfactory system works," according to the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
The Gene Family
Each olfactory receptor cell possesses only one type of odorant receptor, and each receptor can detect a limited number of odorant substances. Our olfactory receptor cells are therefore highly specialized for a few odors.
From these microdomains in the olfactory bulb, the information is relayed further to other parts of the brain, where the information from several olfactory receptors is combined, forming a pattern.
Lilacs and Strawberries
When something tastes really good it is primarily activation of the olfactory system which helps us detect the qualities we regard as positive. A good wine or a sunripe wild strawberry activates a whole array of odorant receptors, helping us to perceive the different odorant molecules.
Loss of Sense of Smell
To lose the sense of smell is a serious handicap -- we no longer perceive the different qualities of food and we cannot detect warning signals, for example smoke from a fire.
The following sections provide more information about the science of our system of smell and are based upon the press release today from the Nobel Assembly.
Deciphering a Sensory