- Prof David Julius’s breakthrough came from investigating the burning pain we feel from eating a hot chilli pepper.
Scientists who discovered how our bodies feel the warmth of the sun or the hug of a loved one have won the Nobel Prize.
David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, from the US, share the 2021 prize in Medicine or Physiology for their work on sensing touch and temperature.
They unpicked how our bodies convert physical sensations into electrical messages in the nervous system.
Their findings could lead to new ways of treating pain.
Heat, cold and touch are crucial for experiencing the world around us and for our own survival but how our bodies actually do it had been one of the great mysteries of biology.
Thomas Perlman, from the Nobel Prize Committee, said: “It was a very important and profound discovery.”
Prof David Julius’s breakthrough, at the University of California, San Francisco, came from investigating the burning pain we feel from eating a hot chilli pepper.
He experimented with the source of a chilli’s heat – the chemical capsaicin.
He discovered the specific type of receptor (a part of our cells that detects the world around them) that responded to capsaicin.
Further tests showed the receptor was responding to heat and kicked in at “painful” temperatures. This is what happens, for example, if you burn your hand on a cup of coffee.
The discovery led to a flurry of other temperature-sensors being discovered. Prof Julius and Prof Ardem Patapoutian found one that could detect cold.
Meanwhile, Prof Patapoutian, working at the Scripps Research institute, was also poking cells in a dish.
Those experiments led to the discovery of a different type of receptor that was activated in response to mechanical force or touch.
When you walk along a beach and feel the sand under your feet – it is these receptors that are sending signals to the brain.
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