American biologist Linda Brown Buck, faculty member of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, is a 2004 Nobel Prize winner for Physiology or Medicine. Buck’s work shared with the world the discovery of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system.
Born in Seattle, Washington, in 1947, Linda Buck enjoyed an explorative childhood and was influenced to pursue greatness by close family members. Her childhood passion for understanding her world and a supportive environment for critical thought prepared her for a life of discovery. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, Buck struggled to find the right career path. When studying immunology, her fascinations led her to pursue biology. Attending graduate school in the Microbiology Department at the University of Texas Medical Center in Dallas, Buck truly embraced the role of a scientist and began thinking in terms of molecules and the molecular mechanisms underlying biological systems.
Realizing she needed to grow in her understanding of the techniques of molecular biology, Buck moved to Columbia University to work with a team under the direction of Richard Axel (1946—). While working on the neuropeptide gene, Buck encountered puzzles surrounding olfaction and was intrigued. She wanted to understand how humans and other mammals are able to detect 10,000 or more odorous chemicals. She set about to find odorant receptors, a class of molecules that had been proposed to exist, but had not yet been found. Together with Richard Axel in 1991, Buck published her discovery showing how hundreds of genes in our DNA are responsible for the coding of the odorant sensors located in the olfactory sensory neurons in our noses. It was this work for which Axel and Buck were awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
In 1991, Buck joined the Neurobiology Department at Harvard Medical School in Boston as an assistant professor where she expanded her understanding of the nervous system. In 1994, Buck became an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Over the next decade, Buck went on to become an associate and then a full professor at Harvard Medical School and continued with her discoveries, focusing next on learning how signals from the olfactory sensory neurons are organized in the brain to generate diverse odor perceptions. Joined by a series of excellent students and postdoctoral fellows, Buck spent many years experimenting and discovering additional layers of knowledge surrounding olfactory sensation.
In 2002, Buck became a member of the Division of Basic Sciences at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Affiliate Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Washington. In 2015, Buck was awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard University and elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS).
Buck continues to research odor perception in addition to pheromone and instinctive behaviors. Her work continues to help the scientific community understand the neural circuits that underlie innate behaviors and basic drives, such as fear, appetite, and reproduction.
See also: Axel, Richard; Olfactory System; Society for Neuroscience
Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (2016). Linda B. Buck, PhD. Retrieved from http://www.hhmi.org/scientists/linda-b-buck
Nobel Media AB. (2014). Linda B. Buck—Facts. Nobelprize.org. Retrieved from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2004/buck-facts.html