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Nobel Prize in Medicine 2021 Winners Announced

The winners discovered receptors for temperature and touch.

Nobel Prize in Medicine 2021 Winners Announced
The Nobel Prize winners David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian. Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize committee has decided to jointly award this year's Prize for Physiology or Medicine to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch. 

David Julius is currently a Professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), while Ardem Patapoutian is a Professor at Scripps Research, La Jolla, California, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator since 2014, Nobel Prize website said. Although working independently, the research conducted by the two researchers and their extended teams has improved our understanding of how we use our senses to perceive the world. 

Back in the 17th century, Descartes proposed that threads connected different parts of the body to our brain. But it was only in the 20th century that scientists discovered sensory nerve fibers that responded to stimuli in our environment. Yet, even until a decade ago, we did not understand the exact mechanism of how the stimuli like temperature or pressure were converted into electrical impulses to be perceived by our brain. 

At UCSF, Julius was working with capsaicin, a chemical compound found in chili peppers that causes the burning sensation. With his team, Julius created a large library of genes to be expressed in cells that do not react to capsaicin. After much effort, the team was found a gene that gave these cells the ability to react to capsaicin. The gene codes for a protein channel that hadn't been studied before and was also found to be responsible for our perception of heat. Further research led to the discovery of a gene that helps us perceive cold things. 

While Julius was working to understand the perception of temperature, Patapoutian and his team at Scripps Research found a cell line that gave off an electric signal when poked. Unlike Julius, Patapoutian's team had a big list of genes that could possibly be involved in this response and worked meticulously to silence them one by one to determine, which gene was critical. Their work also led to a new class of protein channels that had never been studied before but over the years, have been found to play an important role in proprioception, the way we understand our body during motion and helps us balance ourselves. Other researchers have also found the receptors to play a role in maintaining blood pressure, breathing, and bladder control. 

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The shortlisting of the awardees was done by the Nobel Assembly, a 50-member group of professors at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. The Physiology/ Medicine prize is the first announcement for the Nobel Prizes for 2021. Over the next seven days, the committee will announce awardees in the areas of Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Peace, and Economic Sciences.  

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