Following Our Noses
A Nobel for Smell


The nose is smarter than we thought. In fact, it just won two Americans a Nobel Prize.

Researchers Richard Axel of New York and Linda Buck of Seattle were chosen to receive this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Their citation says "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system." Stated more simply, they discovered important details of "how we smell"—how we detect odors via receptors in the nose and information processing in the brain and nervous system.

The press release points out the sometimes life-or-death importance of the sense of smell. Newborn pups use it to locate their mothers' milk glands. Humans use odors "to identify suitable food and to avoid putrid or unfit foodstuff." Mosquitoes locate humans by detecting our odors, so the new research may someday prevent mosquito bites and malaria.

Nobel judge Professor Sten Grillner commented, "Until Axel and Buck's studies, the sense of smell was a mystery." This year's laureates researched details of, in Axel's words, "how the brain knows what the nose is smelling," how it equips organisms "to detect food, predators, and mates." For two scientists, acting alone, to map one of the major human senses, from molecular to cellular level, is unique in the history of science.

A "diverse repertoire of odorous molecules" excite some of the five million receptor cells in the nasal cavity. These cells generate coded electrical signals and send them to the brain.

Ms. Buck adds an ironic observation: "You might have a rose and a skunk being recognized by some of the same receptors." But the brain deciphers those signals and goes on to distinguish ten thousand separate and distinct odors.

Previous Nobel laureates have researched other senses and found equally stunning complexity. In 1981, laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel investigated the sense of sight. They discovered nerve cells that adjust contrast, detect motion, and perform numerous specialized functions. To explain how the brain makes sense of signals from the retina, their work uses the analogy, " … as if certain cells read the simple letters in the message and compile them into syllables that are subsequently read by other cells, which, in turn, compile the syllables into words, and these are finally read by other cells that compile words into sentences" which proceed to the brain, where the visual impression originates.

Nearly a century and a half ago, Charles Darwin conceded,"To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree." He wrote botanist Asa Gray, "The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder." And Darwin didn't know nearly as much as we do about the sophistication of the signal processing from the eye and the nose.

All of this leads to a logical closing question: If researchers earn Nobel Prizes for discovering such intricacies in our sensory organs, doesn't the Intelligent Designer of all of this intricacy deserve some recognition?

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