Linda Buck, a scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and alumna of the UW College of Arts and Sciences, was named winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in October. She received the award for her groundbreaking work on odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system — the network responsible for our sense of smell. She shares the honor with Richard Axel of Columbia University.
Buck graduated from the UW with a B.S. in psychology and microbiology in 1975. She joined Fred Hutchinson’s faculty in 2002 after 11 years as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. She is also an affiliate professor in the UW Department of Physiology and Biophysics.
Buck was a senior postdoc in Axel’s laboratory when she disclosed the nature of the olfactory receptors. The work, published in 1991 by Buck and Axel, is the first to define one of our sensory systems in the most detailed manner possible by defining the genes and proteins that control this remarkably complex response.
The basic principles for recognizing and remembering about 10,000 different odors have long been a mystery. Buck discovered a large gene family, made up of some 1,000 different 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 lining of the nose and detect the inhaled odorant molecules.
Buck has also discovered and characterized families of receptors for pheromones and tastes, providing insights into the mechanisms underlying pheromone effects and taste perception.
“Linda Buck and Richard Axel’s work opened the door on one of the most ancient aspects of our brain and they have each continued to provide seminal insights over the last decade into the mechanisms by which it works,” says Lee Hartwell, Fred Hutchinson’s president and director. “Their recognition by the Nobel committee will be celebrated by the entire scientific community.