Scientists Win Nobel Prize for Figuring Out How We Can Feel Pressure and Heat

Scientists Win Nobel Prize for Figuring Out How We Can Feel Pressure and Heat
David Julius (left) and Ardem Patapoutian (right), the newest Nobel laureates. (Illustration: Nicklas Elmehed for Nobel Prize Outreach)

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their research on temperature and touch receptors. Their discoveries both contributed to what we know about the way our bodies take in sensory information from the world and make sense of it.

The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet announced the award early this morning. Patapoutian watched the press conference with his son and Julius celebrated the award with a cup of coffee with his wife. Patapoutian’s research involved using pressure-sensitive cells to find a previously unknown group of sensors in the body that respond to mechanical stimuli in the skin and organs. Julius found a sensor in our skin’s nerve endings that responds to pain-inducing heat.

Julius’ breakthrough was a long time in the making. His research on a specific chemical compound present in peppers, capsaicin, began in the 1990s, and his team eventually found that a DNA fragment associated with sensory neurons was coded to reacted to capsaicin. From there, the team found a gene that made cells sensitive to the chemical — in other words, Julius’ team mapped out the genetic pathway by which our bodies can detect the painful (or pleasant, depending on your perspective) heat of a chilli pepper.

Separately, and on the other end of the temperature scale, both Julius and Patapoutian used menthol to identify a receptor in our bodies activated by cold (and if you’ve ever had menthol-flavoured anything, you’re familiar with that cold feeling). Besides the temperature extremes we feel from peppers and mints, the receptors are also connected to body temperature and inflammatory pain.

Patapoutian also worked with pressure; specifically, he and his team are trying to understand how the human body experiences and recognises touch. To do this, they poked cells with a micropipette, messing with the cells’ genetics along the way to see if they couldn’t toggle a receptor that caused the cells to react. Eventually, they found a gene that, when silenced, caused the cells to not recognise the pipette’s poking. That gene’s discovery paved the way to finding other genes with similar functions: managing our body’s ability to sense mechanical forces.

Taken together, these discoveries help explain quotidien but essential processes that let us know whether a stove is hot or is someone’s tapping on your shoulder. Our bodies are mere black boxes of response without the work of scientists like Julius and Patapoutian. Congrats to the newest laureates.