David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian are recognized for their discovery of temperature and pressure receptors. The ability to feel heat, cold and touch is the most common thing in the world for us and yet an ability that is essential for survival. How exactly the perception works has not been known for a long time. This year’s Nobel Prize winners have deciphered the responsible receptors and their function.
With the help of capsaicin, David Julius found the sensors in the nerve endings of the skin that are responsible for sensing heat. Capsaicin is the substance that makes chili hot. By examining pressure-sensitive cells, Ardem Patapoutian discovered the receptors that sense mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs. The work of the two researchers laid the foundation for many discoveries that have contributed to our understanding of how we perceive and interact with the world around us.
David Julius had the idea of examining the feeling for heat with the help of chilli back in the late 1990s. It had long been known that capsacain activates precisely those nerve cells that can perceive pain. Julius managed to identify the gene responsible for this. He also identified the protein that he encodes: TRPV1 – an ion channel that gives nerve cells the ability to sense heat. The temperatures that activate it are so high that they are perceived as painful. His discovery was the starting signal for the identification of numerous other temperature-sensitive proteins.
In his search for what makes contact perceptible, Ardem Patapoutian made an important discovery in the Petri dish: cells that responded to a nudge through a fine glass tip with electrical signals. Just as David Julius did before in his search for the capsacain receptor, Patapoutian also succeeded in identifying a single gene that gave the cells their special properties. The scientists named the associated receptor after the Greek word for pressure, piezo1. The discovery of a second pressure receptor, the Piezo2, followed.
Both pressure receptors take on important regulatory functions in the bodysuch as maintaining blood pressure, bladder control or breathing. Piezo2 plays an important role in the sense of touch and is involved in what scientists call proprioception: the intuitive knowledge of the posture and movement of the body.
How do we feel cold and warm? How do we feel touch? And how do we know what our body is doing right now? With their work, the two researchers have created a basis for understanding how our senses work.
Knowledge that, in ongoing research, also helps develop treatments for numerous conditions, from chronic pain to high blood pressure. “If you don’t understand the basics, you have no chance of getting clinical applications”, said the neuroscientist Manuela Schmidt in the Dlf. The discoveries of the Nobel laureates opened up new avenues.
Who are David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian
David Julius is an American sensory physiologist and professor at the University of California at San Francisco. Born in Brooklyn in New York in 1955, Julius went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after graduating from school – actually with medicine as his goal. Then he liked the lab research so much that he wrote his PhD in biology at the University of California at Berkeley. He then returned to his hometown New York for a few years before joining UCSF in 1990, where the award-winning scientist now has his own laboratory named after him.
(imago stock&people)Menthol receptor makes mice and humans shiver
After the discovery of the heat-sensitive capsacain receptor, the cold-sensitive menthol receptor also followed. In 2007 David Julius announced his latest discovery in the Dlf, long before it was clear that it would one day win the Nobel Prize.
Arden Patapoutian was born in Beirut in 1967. His childhood was marked by the Lebanese civil war. He studied at the American University in Beirut before coming to the United States in 1986 and taking American citizenship there. He is now Professor of Neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. He describes being a scientist as an unbelievable privilege: “The intellectual nourishment, the rich universe of comrades-in-arms, the beautiful places in the world to which science has taken me, the wonders and secrets of the human body – what joy, what happiness . “
The neurobiologist Jörg Grandl knows both Nobel Prize winners personally and has worked in Ardem Patapoutian’s laboratory for many years: “What distinguishes both of them is the ability to give up early”he said in the Dlf. The two neuroscientists have a good sense of when it would be time to rethink and take a different approach. That would have really spurred the field. His time in Ardem Patapoutian’s laboratory would have been one of the best of his life.
The Nobel Prize ceremony in the livestream
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