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How a chilli burn led to a Nobel prize

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

The Nobel Prize in the field of physiology or medicine has been awarded to US-based scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian.

The 2021 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine has been awarded to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.

The two US-based scientists received the accolade for describing the mechanics of how humans perceive hot and cold, and pressure through nerve impulses.

Julius is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Patapoutian is a professor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California.

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"Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us," the Nobel Assembly said in a statement announcing the prize.

"Julius utilised capsaicin, a pungent compound from chilli peppers that induces a burning sensation, to identify a sensor in the nerve endings of the skin that responds to heat ... Patapoutian used pressure-sensitive cells to discover a novel class of sensors that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and internal organs," it added.

Thomas Perlmann, the secretary of the Nobel Assembly and the Nobel Committee, said the discovery "unlocks the secrets of nature ... It explains at a molecular level how these stimuli are converted into nerve signals. It's an important and profound discovery."

The Nobel Committee explained that when Julius started studying why capsaicin induces a burning sensation, it was already known that the compound activates nerve cells causing pain — but how exactly that happens was an "unsolved riddle."

Julius and his team created a library of millions of DNA fragments corresponding to genes that are expressed in the sensory neurones which can react to pain, heat and touch. They then plugged genes from this collection into cells that do not normally react to capsaicin to find the single gene that caused the sensitivity.

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Julius later realised that the capsaicin receptor he discovered is a heat-sensing receptor that is activated at temperatures that are perceived as painful, the Nobel Committee said.

At the same time, Patapoutian and his collaborators were trying to understand how mechanical stimuli could be converted into our senses of touch and pressure.

They identified a cell line that reacted when its individual cells were poked with a micropipette. The team then identified 72 candidate genes that could be encoding receptors and "switched them off" one by one to discover the one responsible for mechanosensitivity.

Abdel El Manira, an adjunct member of the Nobel Committee for Physiology and Medicine, said the discovery was made more than a decade ago.

"It's the right time (for it) to be recognised. It profoundly changed our view of how we sense the world ... In the last year, we have missed our sense of touch — during a hug for example. These are the receptors that give us the feeling of warmth and closeness," he said.

Source: 9News

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