Axel, Richard

Axel, Richard ăkˈsĕl [key], 1946–, American pathologist and biochemist, b. New York City, M.D. Johns Hopkins, 1970. A professor at Columbia from 1978, Axel was awarded, with Linda B. Buck, the 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for elucidating the human olfactory system and demonstrating how olfactory receptors are encoded in the nose. After working together on the discovery of odorant receptors, the two worked in parallel in different labs in the 1990s and went on to learn how the brain organizes signals from those receptors to perceive different smells. They discovered that a family of about 1,000 genes, representing 3% of the human genome, is responsible for how humans recognize and remember some 10,000 different odors. Their work was the first successful attempt to decipher a sensory system using molecular techniques and, in shedding light on how humans process input from the external world, it contributed to a better understanding of how the brain works.

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