For her postdoctoral research, Dr. Linda Buck worked in the lab of Dr. Richard Axel at Columbia University starting in 1980. Inspired by a paper about the olfactory system she set out to map the olfactory process at the molecular level tracing the travel of odors through the cells of the nose to the brain.
Working with rat genes, doctors Buck and Axel were able to identify a family of genes that code for more than 100 odor receptors. These odorant sensors located in the olfactory neurons of our noses is a protein that changes when an odor attaches to the receptor which then causes an electrical signal to be sent to the brain. The differences between these sensors allow for certain signals to be released from particular receptors.
As part of this research Buck cloned olfactory receptors and through their analysis it was shown that there are approximately 1000 different genes for these receptors in the mammalian genome. These first findings were published in 1991, the same year that Buck became an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Continuing her research on how odor receptors are organized in the nose she published a follow up paper in 1993.
In 2004 Dr. Buck and Dr. Axel were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine “for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system”.
Since being awarded the Nobel, Dr. Buck has not rested on that success but continues to refine her work and deepen our understanding of the olfactory system. As the principal investigator of the Linda Buck Lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center she leads a team of postdoctoral fellows studying the molecular mechanisms and neural circuits that underlie the sense of smell and instinctive odor responses. The research looks at how the olfactory system detects environmental chemicals and how the brain translates those into diverse odor perceptions, instinctive behaviors, and hormonal alterations. By illuminating the neural circuits underpinning these effects the team hopes to provide clues to those affected in certain human disorders including those involving stress, fear, and appetite.
Written by Angela Goad