Nobel Prize for US scientists who discovered how we sense heat and touch

4 Oct 2021

Illustration of David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Prize

Researchers David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian discovered how heat and touch are turned into electric signals in our body.

Two US scientists behind the discoveries that helped us better understand how temperature and touch can initiate signals in our nervous system have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian made breakthrough discoveries that led to research into how the human nervous system senses heat, cold and mechanical stimuli – an area of research that eluded scientists for a long time.

Julius used capsaicin, a compound found in chilli peppers that causes a burning sensation, to identify the sensor in skin nerve endings that sends signals to the brain and make us feel the heat.

Meanwhile, Patapoutian discovered a new class of sensors in the skin and internal organs that respond to mechanical stimuli by producing measurable electric signals. His research led to the identification of two genes, Piezo1 and Piezo2, that play a role in the sense of touch.

The Nobel Committee said that the two laureates “identified critical missing links in our understanding of the complex interplay between our senses and the environment”. Their work is now being used to develop treatments for a range of disease conditions, including chronic pain.

Prior to these discoveries, scientists did not understand how external stimuli such as heat and touch are converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system.

Who are they?

Julius, a native of New York, is a professor and chair of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Last year, he was one of the winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, funded by tech entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki.

A graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Julius earned his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University.

Patapoutian is a professor of neuroscience at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles after emigrating to the US.

He earned his PhD in biology from California Institute of Technology and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco. He has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator since 2014.

Last year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Harvey J Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M Rice for their significant contributions to research on blood-borne hepatitis that causes cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Irish scientist William Campbell won the prize in 2015 for his role in discoveries concerning therapies to fight roundworm parasitic infections.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic