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Linda Buck
Linda Buck
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Linda Buck Profile

Nobel Prize in Medicine

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  Linda Buck

Linda Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for unlocking a mystery that had baffled scientists for centuries. From infancy, we depend on our sense of smell to identify which foods are fit for consumption, and to warn us of impending danger, as in a fire. Although science had made great strides in understanding the mechanics of human vision and hearing, it was unable to answer the simple question: how do we smell the things we smell?

In 1988, Dr. Buck, a postdoctoral fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in New York City, set about applying the latest discoveries in genetics to this persistent puzzle. Dr. Buck conducted a series of experiments with the mouse genome, and discovered a family of genes specifically dedicated to creating the 1,000 olfactory receptors of the mouse nose. A similar family of genes create the 350 olfactory receptors in the human nose, possibly the largest family of genes in the entire human genome. With each cellular receptor responsive to a single, specific scent, each of the roughly 10,000 odors we can distinguish are perceived by different combinations of these receptors. These patterns are reproduced in the cells of the brain, enabling us to recognize odors years after we first encounter them.

When Dr. Buck published her findings, the reaction in the scientific community was unanimous; she was showered with every major honor in American science. In making the 2004 award, the Nobel Committee cited Buck for her "discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system," but these words only begin to convey the fundamental nature of this breakthrough. Dr. Buck's subsequent research is uncovering the neural circuits that underlie our most basic instinctive responses, such as appetite, fear and aggression. Linda Buck has taken a revolutionary step forward in our understanding of the workings of the brain.

This page last revised on Jun 20, 2013 16:56 EDT
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