Economist Joshua Angrist is not this year’s only Nobel winner from the MIT community: David Julius ’77 shared the 2021 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries about how the body senses touch and temperature.
Julius, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and Ardem Patapoutian, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, helped to answer a fundamental question: How are temperature and mechanical stimuli converted into electrical impulses in the nervous system?
Using capsaicin, a compound that gives chili peppers their burning sensation, Julius was able to identify a receptor in the nerve endings of skin that responds to heat. His experiments revealed that this receptor, which he called TRPV1, is an ion channel activated by painful heat.
“David Julius’s discovery of TRPV1 was the breakthrough that allowed us to understand how differences in temperature can induce electrical signals in the nervous system,” the Nobel committee said.
Later, Julius and Patapoutian independently discovered a receptor called TRPM8, which responds to cold. Patapoutian was also honored for his discovery of receptors that respond to mechanical force in the skin and other organs. Their work is now being harnessed to develop treatments for a variety of diseases, including chronic pain.
Julius, who was born in New York, earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from MIT in 1977. He received a PhD in 1984 from the University of California, Berkeley, and was a postdoc at Columbia University before joining UCSF in 1989.
He is the 39th MIT graduate to win a Nobel prize.
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