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Linda Buck
 
Linda Buck
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Linda Buck Biography

Nobel Prize in Medicine

Linda Buck Date of birth: January 29, 1947

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  Linda Buck

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Linda Buck was born in 1947 in Seattle, Washington. Her father was an electrical engineer by profession and an inventor by avocation, while her mother enjoyed solving puzzles of all kinds. Linda Buck believes her father's inventiveness and her mother's love of problem-solving contributed to her own later passion for science. Both parents taught her to think independently and assured her she had the ability to do anything she set out to do in life.

She stayed close to home as an undergraduate, attending the nearby University of Washington. Her initial academic interest lay in psychology, and she considered becoming a psychotherapist. Her direction changed when she took her first undergraduate course in immunology and decided to become a biologist. In 1975, she entered graduate school in the Microbiology Department at the University of Texas Medical Center in Dallas, a major center for the relatively new field of immunology. In Dallas, she earned a Ph.D. in immunology and gained her first insights into the molecular mechanisms underlying biological systems.

To learn the newest techniques of molecular biology, she pursued postdoctoral research at Columbia University, beginning in 1980. At Columbia, she gravitated towards the laboratory of Dr. Richard Axel, an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who first developed the transfer techniques that enable us to study genes in vitro.

Linda Buck Biography Photo
Building on Axel's studies of the neurons of the sea snail Aplysia, she undertook to develop a technique for identifying and cloning genes that may be expressed in one Aplysia neuron, but not in others. As her mastery of the techniques of molecular biology grew, Buck became increasingly fascinated with applying this science to the understanding of the brain, with its enormous diversity of cells and neural connections.

Near the end of her Aplysia project she read a paper that, by her own account, changed her life. There are few mysteries more profound and intriguing than how the stimuli received by our senses are encoded as impressions in the brain. The 1985 paper, by Solomon Snyder's research group at Johns Hopkins University, discussed the potential mechanisms that might underlie odor detection. The human sense of smell can identify 10,000 or more different chemicals, and reacts completely differently to compounds that are nearly identical at the molecular level. Dr. Buck had never considered the process before and was fascinated.

In 1988, Linda Buck set out to map the olfactory process -- the sense of smell -- at the molecular level, tracing the progress of perceived odors through the cells of the nose to those of the brain. Working with the genes of a rat, she identified a family of genes that code for more than 100 odor receptors (ORs). She and her mentor, Richard Axel, published these findings in 1991.

Linda Buck Biography Photo
Later that year, Dr. Buck left Columbia to become an assistant professor in the Neurobiology Department at Harvard Medical School, where she established a lab of her own. Following her initial discoveries of the means by which odors are detected by the nose, she set out to learn how these signals are perceived and organized. In 1993, she published her findings on how the inputs from different ORs are organized in the nose.

She pursued the olfactory system from the nose to the olfactory bulb, a set of neurons in 2,000 spherical structures called glomeruli. Findings concerning the glomeruli were published in 1994. It was a banner year for Dr. Buck. That same year, she became an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which has supported her work ever since, and she met Roger Brent, a fellow scientist who became her lifelong companion.

She would eventually identify genes responsible for 1,000 ORs in the mouse nose, and 350 in the human. Buck published her findings on the organization of olfactory impressions in the cortex of the brain in 2001, ending a decade of work at Harvard. In her years at Harvard, Buck's group also investigated the chromosomal organization of OR genes, and began the investigation of the mechanism of taste.

In 2002, after ten years at Harvard, Dr. Buck returned to her native Seattle to join the Division of Basic Sciences at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and to serve as Affiliate Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Washington. The return to the West Coast brought her closer to family and old friends, and to Roger Brent, who lives in Berkeley, California.

Linda Buck Biography Photo
At Seattle, Dr. Buck continues to explore the mechanisms underlying odor perception, as well as the means by which pheromones elicit instinctive behaviors. Buck and her colleagues have determined how the mammalian brain translates as many as 10,000 different chemicals into distinct smells. She is now investigating the neural circuits that underlie innate behaviors and basic drives, such as fear, appetite and reproduction. Her laboratory has also developed chemical libraries to identify genes that control aging and lifespan.

As Dr. Buck published her findings, the reaction in the scientific community was unanimous; she was showered with every major honor in American science. In 2004 her pioneering work on the mechanism of smell was honored with the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Harvard University recognized her achievement with an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 2015. Today, laboratories all over the world apply her techniques and insights to the sensory systems of all species, from the simplest to the most complex.




This page last revised on Jun 19, 2015 20:41 EDT
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