American researcher, molecular biologist, and neuroscientist Richard Axel is a professor at Columbia University and a 2004 Nobel Prize winner for Physiology or Medicine. Axel’s work has demonstrated the intricate workings of smell, or olfaction. Axel also holds the titles of Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and of Pathology at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Born in the summer of 1946 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, as the first child of Polish immigrants, Richard Axel grew up with few intellectual aspirations. Recognized as gifted by his grade school principal, Axel was encouraged to attend Stuyvesant High School in 1963. It was here that he began his fascination with perception and how the brain represents the external world. On a scholarship to Columbia University, Axel met Bernard Weinstein (1930—2008), became his assistant, and fell in love with molecular biology, going on to study genetics at the graduate level. Upon being made a full professor at Columbia in 1978, Axel continued to explore perception and brain functioning.
Axel, along with microbiologist Saul J. Silverstein and geneticist Michael H. Wigler (1947—), discovered a technique of cotransformation, a process that allows foreign DNA to be inserted into a host cell to produce certain proteins. Axel filed for patents covering this technique, and they became a fundamental process in recombinant DNA research. The use of these techniques by pharmaceutical and biotech companies has earned the University of Columbia significant licensing revenue.
As Axel progressed in his field, he was particularly struck by observations from animal behavior, noticing that what an organism detects in its environment is only part of what is around it and that part varies in different organisms. Axel proposed that the brain functions not by recording an exact image of the world, but by creating its own selective picture. Further, what the brain interprets as reality therefore reflects the representation that the brain has built. Because the brain requires genes to build, it is the genes that determine what is perceived. Axel’s work became focused on understanding these genes to provide insight into how the external world is represented in the brain.
Together with Linda Buck (1947—), a creative fellow in the lab, Axel’s research turned to exploring how the chemosensory world is represented in the brain. The complexity of olfaction was an intriguing model for the molecular biologist. Assuming that olfaction involved a large family of genes, Buck and Axel worked together to identify an approach that indeed identified the genes encoding the receptors that recognize the vast array of odorants in the environment.
It was this work for which Axel and Buck were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In addition to making contributions as a scientist, Axel has also mentored many leading scientists in the field of neurobiology. Seven of his trainees have become members of the National Academy of Sciences, and currently six of his trainees are affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s investigator and early scientist award programs.
See also: Buck, Linda; Olfactory System; Society for Neuroscience
Nobel Media AB. (2014). Richard Axel—Facts. Nobelprize.org. Retrieved from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2004/axel-facts.html
The Royal Society. (2016). Richard Axel. Retrieved from https://royalsociety.org/people/richard-axel-11019/