Basic research for the (Nobel Prize) Win

All this week, the news will be full of articles celebrating scientific achievement in the form of announcements regarding the 2021 Nobel Prizes. These yearly awards celebrate achievement in the Sciences, Literature, Peace, and Economics (though not all are officially “Nobel” prizes). It is one of the major awards in the sciences that everyone knows about, and it commonly appears in popular movies and television shows (even the Big Bang Theory!) And while there are problematic aspects to the prizes, they remain an important way to celebrate scientific innovation.

Dr Amy Farrah Fowler and Dr. Sheldon Cooper with the Nobel Prize in the Big Bang Theory

On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine to to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch.” This is exciting basic research, meaning that the scientific experimentation is performed to learn more about natural phenomenon and to contribute their observations to improve scientific theories. These important studies allow us to understand more about how the world around us works.

Julius and Patapoutian’s work focused on sensory inputs — specifically pain and touch. The researchers wanted to better understand how our body perceives these stimuli, from the initial sensory input to the nerve impulses that reach our brain and allow us to feel. The researchers used genetic approaches to identify the proteins in the body that transmit the stimuli. They ended up being ion channels, or membrane-embedded proteins that move ions from one side of a membrane to the other. When the ions move, they can trigger the body to feel. In her piece for ASBMB Today, Dr. Laurel Oldach further discusses the science that won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

For more information, the Nobel Prize website has a detailed description of the research that was awarded the prize, and interviews with people describing why the research was deserving of the prize. We also have resources for teaching neuroscience in the classroom, including hands-on biotechnology experiments and Origami Organelles.

You may be asking why not mRNA vaccines? Keep your eyes open for the Chemistry award, which will be announced.

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