The Science of Scent Wins a Nobel Prize

Linda Buck

Very few in this world have the opportunity to do every day what they love, as I have.
Linda Buck
Richard Axel

Richard Axel

Humans can distinguish more than 10,000 scents. Odors stir human memory and responses. But the basic mechanism was mysterious when Richard Axel and UW alumna Linda Buck set out to understand what lay behind the sense of smell. In elegant experiments, they identified the genes that control odor receptors, and shared the 2004 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

When they began, some basics were known. Air breathed into the nose flows across moist membranes, past sensory receptors. When a receptor recognizes a specific fragrance molecule, the information is relayed to the brain’s olfactory lobe. From there, messages are sent to the temporal lobe, which stores memories, or to the ancient parts of the brain that prompt emotions, sexuality, appetite, and aggression or flight. What lay behind the receptors and what triggered the response?

When Buck and Axel announced their breakthrough in 1991, they had identified eighteen of the genes that contain blueprints for smell-receptors, and that number has grown. Their work showed that more genes control the sense of smell than any other sense – smell is crucial to human survival. In 2002, Buck returned to Seattle to continue olfactory research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, as a UW Professor of Physiology and Biophysics.

Vesalius Olfactory Bulbs (Ancheta Wis,

Vesalius Olfactory Bulbs (Ancheta Wis,

Linda Buck Discusses Her Approach to Research

Further Reading

“Hutch Scientist Unlocked Secret to Sense of Smell” (PDF)
This article quotes Dr. Lee Hartwell, Director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center: “Today’s Nobel laureate, Dr. Linda Buck, has discovered the molecules that detect odors and relay that information to our nervous system” 10.5.2004
Seattle Times

“A Novel Multigene Family May Encode Odorant Receptors: A Molecular Basis for Odor Recognition” (PDF)
Linda Buck and Richard Axel’s 1991 breakthrough article, describing their exciting research.
Cell Vol. 65 April 5, 1991

“Nose Knows Smells Thanks to Gene Group, Research Finds” (PDF)
Local coverage of Axel and Buck’s early work, quoting colleague Dr. Charles
Wysocki that their research is “a bombshell”; it’s something that was not expected for many years. 4/5/1991
Seattle Times

“Order Out of Odors: It All Makes Scents, Cents, Sense” (PDF)
Local coverage revealed the excitement with which Buck’s research was followed, 12/29/1992.
Seattle Times

“The Search for Odorant Receptors” (PDF)
Dr. Linda Buck at Seattle’s FHCRC, reviews her career of olfactory research to date.
Cell, January 23, 2004

“The Mouse Olfactory Receptor Gene Family” (PDF)
Dr. Buck joined two other biologists to report recent research at FHCRC.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Vol. 101, No. 7 (Feb. 17, 2004)

Additional Resources