Scientists Studied Spicy Chili Peppers and Cool Menthol for Their Nobel Prize–Winning Research on Heat and Touch

Their independent discoveries answer fundamental questions about how we sense our environment and could lead to breakthrough pain relief treatments

Black and yellow illustration of the two nobel prize winners, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian.
The Nobel committee announced the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, earlier today. © Ill. Niklas Elmehed / Nobel Prize Outreach

American scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian jointly won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine today for their breakthrough work studying the receptors in skin that sense temperature and touch. Their discoveries help answer fundamental questions about how we sense our environment and could open the door to new non-opioid treatments for chronic pain.

“Our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and underpins our interaction with the world around us,” said the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet. “Prior to the discoveries of David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, our understanding of how the nervous system senses and interprets our environment still contained a fundamental unsolved question: how are temperature and mechanical stimuli converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system?”

Julius and Patapoutian’s independent discoveries led to a rapid increase in scientists’ understanding of how we sense stimuli in our environment, like heat, cold, and touch. Without these crucial receptors, we wouldn’t be able to feel a hug from a loved one or know to pull away from a hot flame. Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, used capsaicin—the irritating component of chili peppers—to pinpoint a protein on nerve cells that responds to painful levels of spice. 

Molecular biologist Patapoutian and his team at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, poked individual cells with a micropipette and observed their electric signals. Using this prodding technique, Patapoutian was able to identify the cellular mechanism and underlying gene that translates a mechanical force, like pressure on our skin, into an electrical signal in our nervous system. Working independently of each other, Julius and Patapoutian also used menthol to discover a receptor for sensing cold.

“Julius and Patapoutian have shown, in beautiful mechanistic detail, how the full range of different bodily sensations work,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London, to the Guardian's Ian Sample.

The Nobel prizes, which are awarded for achievements in science, literature and peace, are being announced this week, starting today. The Nobel committee announced the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine around 2:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time this morning and caught the California-based recipients off guard. Patapoutian said the committee eventually contacted his 94-year-old father on his landline, who called his son to tell him, “I think you won the Nobel Prize,” according to the New York Times.

“I’m a bit overwhelmed,” Patapoutian tells the New York Times, “but pretty happy.” 

Julius was woken up by a text from his sister-in-law reading, “Someone has been trying to reach you…I didn’t want to give him your phone number.” Their award also includes a monetary prize of 10 million Swedish kronor—over $1 million USD—to be split evenly between the two winners, according to Reuters.

The century-old Nobel Prizes were created and funded in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel and have been awarded since 1901. Last year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine received the award for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus. The Nobel Prize in Physics will be announced on Tuesday, Chemistry on Wednesday, Literature Thursday, and the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday. The Nobel in economic science will be announced on October 11.

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