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Too Hot to Handle: Sensory Researchers Win 2021 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine

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American researchers David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Julius and Patapoutian, of the University of California San Francisco and the Scripps Research Institute respectively, won for their work in teasing out the molecular basis of two aspects of the human sensory experience: heat and pressure.

This Nobel, one of the five prizes set up by the will of Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, is awarded by the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute. The assembly members, in a
press release, said that the prize had been awarded for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.

These two senses are essential to our survival, but prior to Julius and Patapoutian’s work, it was unclear how our nervous system took in information about, for example, a very hot stove, and converted that into electrical impulses that could be acted on,
 such as ceasing to touch said hot stove.


No vaccine Nobel?

Predictions for this year’s Nobel commonly suggested that awards be given to researchers behind the vaccines developed to treat COVID-19., But, under pressure (sorry), to nominate this recently advantageous research, the Nobel committee have stuck to their guns and awarded older work – Julius’s from the late 1990s and Patapoutian’s mainly from the early 2010s – that have had ramifications years later. That’s not to say we won’t see a vaccine Nobel at some point – the revolutionary gene editing tool CRISPR, developed in 2012, took eight years to secure a Nobel Prize for Chemistry for creators Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna.


Julius, using capsaicin, the same chemical that gives chili peppers their intense heat, identified a gene and protein pair that encoded a receptor, later named TRPV1. When TRPV1 was inserted into cells that normally had nothing to do with sensing heat, those same cell became capsaicin sensitive. Julius realized that TRPV1 was a heat sensor, that became specifically activated when high heat levels were detected.  Later work identified cold-sensing proteins and even an entirely family of related receptors that tell our bodies about different temperature ranges.

Patapoutian’s research focused on a similar sensory head-scratcher – how does the body convert mechanical signals from the environment into electrical impulses that tell us, for example, someone is standing on your foot, or giving you a rather too-firm handshake?

By poking individual cells with a tiny pipette and recording the electrical signals produced, Patapoutian produced a list of 72 candidate pressure-sensing genes that were painstakingly worked through. Eventually identifying a gene/protein combination that, when silenced in the cell, made it stop reacting to a pipette-delivered poke. This protein, Piezo1, was later joined by a related protein, Piezo2, that together respond to the sensation of pressure on cell membranes, releasing an ion burst that the sensory system can them interpret as pressure.

Together, the duo’s findings have given us incredible insight into how our bodies detect the world around us, explaining how we can recognize the sensation of warm hug or the cold shock of an ice cube down the back of a shirt. The research, aside from advancing our basic understanding of the nervous system, also provides us with new routes to understanding conditions where these senses are impaired or overstimulated, such as in chronic pain.