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The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Richard Axel, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Columbia University Medical Center, and Linda Buck, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The scientists were honored for their discoveries that clarify how the olfactory system works.
Axel and Buck discovered a large gene family composed of some 1,000 different genes (3% of human genes) that give rise to an equivalent number of olfactory receptor types. These receptors are located on the olfactory receptor cells, which occupy a small area in the upper part of the nasal epithelium and detect the inhaled odorant molecules.
In 1991 Axel and Buck—who was then a postdoctoral fellow in Axel's laboratory—discovered a family of genes that encode the odorant receptors of the olfactory epithelium. The receptor proteins would be the key to answering two basic questions about olfaction, explained Axel. First, how does the system respond to the thousands of molecules …
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