Nobel and other Prizes

Physiology Nobel for work on temperature and touch


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Nobel Price, Genes controling senses

Mains level: Read the attached story


U.S. scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian have won the Nobel Medicine Prize for discoveries on receptors for temperature and touch.

Who are the Laureates?

  • David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, working independently in the United States, made a series of discoveries in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
  • They figured out the touch detectors in our body and the mechanism through which they communicate with the nervous system to identify and respond to a particular touch.

What did they discover?

  • They discovered the molecular sensors in the human body that are sensitive to heat, and to mechanical pressure, and make us “feel” hot or cold, or the touch of a sharp object on our skin.
  • n 1997, Dr. Julius and his team published a paper in Nature detailing how capsaicin, or the chemical compound in chili peppers, causes the burning sensation.
  • They created a library of DNA fragments to understand the corresponding genes and finally discovered a new capsaicin receptor and named it TRPV1.
  • This discovery paved the way for the identification of many other temperature-sensing receptors.
  • They identified another new receptor called TRPM8, a receptor that is activated by cold. It is specifically expressed in a subset of pain-and-temperature-sensing neurons.
  • They identified a single gene PIEZO2, which when silenced made the cells insensitive to the poking. They named this new mechanosensitive ion channel Piezo1.

How do they work?

  • The human ability to sense heat or cold and pressure is not very different from the working of the many detectors that we are familiar with.
  • When something hot, or cold, touches the body, the heat receptors enable the passage of some specific chemicals, like calcium ions, through the membrane of nerve cells.
  • It’s like a gate that opens up on a very specific request. The entry of the chemical inside the cell causes a small change in electrical voltage, which is picked up by the nervous system.
  • There is a whole spectrum of receptors that are sensitive to different ranges of temperature.
  • When there is more heat, more channels open up to allow the flow of ions, and the brain is able to perceive higher temperatures.

Therapeutic implications

  • Breakthroughs in physiology have often resulted in an improvement in the ability to fight diseases and disorders. This one is no different.
  • There are receptors that make us feel pain. If these receptors can suppress, or made less effective, the person had felt less pain.
  • Chronic pain is present is a number of illnesses and disorders. Earlier, the experience of pain was a mystery.
  • But as we understand these receptors more and more, it is possible that we gain the ability to regulate them in such a way that the pain is minimized.

[Note: We will compile all Nobel Prizes into a single post once all are awarded.]

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