Linda Buck, Ph.D., a member of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's Basic Sciences Division, has been named winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
She received the award for her groundbreaking work on odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system -- the network responsible for our sense of smell.
Buck is the third Fred Hutchinson researcher to receive the Nobel in physiology or medicine. Other laureates are Lee Hartwell, Ph.D., the center's president and director, who was awarded the Nobel in 2001 for his groundbreaking work in yeast genetics; and E. Donnall Thomas, M.D., director emeritus of the center's Clinical Research Division, who received the Nobel in 1990 for his pioneering work in bone-marrow transplantation.
Considered the world's most distinguished honor for outstanding contributions to basic and clinical medical research, the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, selected Buck for discovering the molecular basis of smell: a multigene family that encodes 1,000 different olfactory receptors in the nose.
She shares the honor with Richard Axel, Ph.D., of Columbia University. The researchers will receive the award on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, after whom the award is named.
Buck, who joined Fred Hutchinson's faculty in 2002 after 11 years as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, was a senior postdoc in Axel's laboratory when she disclosed the nature of the olfactory receptors, and they co-published this work in 1991. 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, Buck 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. Buck and Axel 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. By registering the electrical signals coming from single olfactory-receptor cells, it was possible to show that each cell does not react only to one odor molecule, but to several related molecules.
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.
Buck has also discovered and characterized families of receptors for pheromones and tastes, providing insights into the mechanisms underlying pheromone effects and taste perception.
"Linda Buck and Richard Axel's work opened the door on one of the most ancient aspects of our brain and they have each continued to provide seminal insights over the last decade into the mechanisms by which it works. Their recognition by the Nobel committee will be celebrated by the entire scientific community," Hartwell said.
Buck, also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and an affiliate professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Washington, is the recipient of many national and international scientific awards. In 2003 she received the Gairdner Award, the Perl-UNC Neurosceince Prize and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She's also the recipient of 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. Since 1901, Nobel Prizes have been awarded annually on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish-born inventor and international industrialist for whom the award is named. In addition to physiology or medicine, Nobel Prizes are awarded in physics, chemistry, literature, economic sciences and peace.
For more information, visit the Center's Web site at http://www.fhcrc.org and the Nobel Foundation Web site at http://www.nobel.se.