A Chilli, A Pipette, And A Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize announcements for 2021 kicked off in the first week of October, with the Prize in Physiology or Medicine being the first to be announced.The award was deservedly given to Dr. Ardem Patapoutian and Dr. David Julius for their remarkable discoveries about touch, temperature and how we perceive our world. It is the detailed molecular understanding of thermosensation and mechanical sensation, the very things that we seem to take for granted in our daily life, that has triggered a wealth of scientific discovery and therefore won this year’s coveted Nobel in the field.

How did it happen?

To explore how heat and cold works at the molecular level, Dr. Julius at the University of California began his investigations in the latter part of the 1990s. His fascination with folk medicine and health, and the potential of using natural products to understand physiology, led him to work with capsaicin—the substance in chili that causes the burning sensation. He and his team used it to identify the gene responsible for capsaicin sensitivity and the receptor it encoded. They called it: TRPV1. This work led to an array of temperature sensors being discovered over the last three decades.

In another lab at Scripps Research in La Jolla, USA, Dr. Ardem worked to find how mechanical stimuli could be converted to a sense of touch and pressure. He and his team painstakingly worked through 72 candidate genes to identify the receptor activated by mechanical stimuli (or a poke with a micropipette). The encoded receptor is now known to be involved in many physiological processes, including blood pressure, respiration, and control of the urinary bladder. After much work, a single gene, Piezo1 (Piezo-Type Mechanosensitive Ion Channel Component 1), was identified, which when shut down made cells insensitive to mechanical stimuli such as poking.

Breaking News!

Many Nobel prize winners receive the delightful call from The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in the early hours of the morning of Oct 4, 2021.  And it was no different for this year’s Physiology or Medicine winners either. In fact, Dr. Ardem missed multiple phone calls from the Nobel Committee. So, the committee got through to his 92-year-old father, who had the joy of reaching out to his son with this fantastic news. Dr. Ardem later tweeted.

Dr. Julius said that “My phone was blowing up!” as he spent his morning looking at all the congratulatory messages he received.

Looking Ahead

While reflecting on the impact of the award-winning discoveries, Abdel El Manira, a member of the Nobel Assembly, said, “Their discovery has profoundly changed our view of how we sense the world around us.”

Indeed, over the years, Dr. Julius and Dr. Ardem’s work has inspired a flood of research that has led to many insightful studies about the role of several receptors in nervous responses. Much of this knowledge is guiding the development of treatment for chronic or persistent pain syndromes. It is also helping to guide the production of devise analgesics that are non-opioid based, with potentially fewer harmful side-effects. All of this has made the work of Dr. Julius and Dr. Ardem’s well deserving of the Nobel Prize, given the fundamental questions it helped answer, and the clinical work it continues to impact.

And what can we learn from them? For starters, scientific discovery often requires meticulous planning and painstaking effort. And, maybe the next time we step into a kitchen, something as simple as a spice can help trigger the next big scientific discovery!



What Chili Peppers Can Teach Us about Pain – Scientific American

Sense of touch and heat research wins Nobel Prize – BBC News

(669) David Julius: The Science of Pain and Touch – YouTube

The Brain Under Pressure: An Interview With Kavli Prize in Neuroscience Winner Professor Ardem Patapoutian Video | Technology Networks


Author : Yashika Kapoor

Review Editor : Manasi Apte, Ph.D., Cheryl Travasso, Ph.D., & Liza Changkakoti, M.Sc.

Graphics Design : Tausif Ahmed Sayed, B.E. (Chem.)

Conceptulization and Managing Editor : Pawan Upadhyay, Ph.D.

Web editing & Type setting : Karthick Raj S M K, B.Tech.(Food Technology)

Outreach and Communications: Sneh Lata Gupta, Kothai Subramanian, Nikita Nimbark

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