The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet has today decided to award the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.”
Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us. In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted, but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s laureates.
Julius utilised capsaicin, a pungent compound from chilli peppers that induces a burning sensation, to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat. Patapoutian used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a novel class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs. These breakthrough discoveries launched intense research activities leading to an increase in our understanding of how our nervous system senses heat, cold, and mechanical stimuli. The 2021 medicine laureates identified critical missing links in our understanding of the complex interplay between our senses and the environment.
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