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November 30, 2021

Cornell Professors Explain Nobel-Winning Physiology and Physics

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The latest hype surrounding hot peppers is not some form of an internet challenge, but the latest Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. 

This year, the award was bestowed to Prof. David Julius, physiology, University of California, San Francisco, and Prof. Ardem Patapoutian, neuroscience, Scripps Research Institute, for their discovery of the receptors for temperature and touch. They came to this discovery by determining which of the proteins in DNA reacted to the ingredients capsaicin and menthol which are found in peppers and mint, respectively. These discoveries are instrumental to our understanding of physiology and may lead to the development of new treatments for pain disorders here at Cornell.

Prof. Simon Schuering, physiology and biophysics, notes that mammalian species have always needed to regulate body temperature to survive. But to do so, they must be able to sense and perceive the temperature of their environment. Scientists have long understood how to sense stimuli through sight and hearing, but the understanding of temperature and touch was a mystery until the discovery of transient receptor potential protein channels by Julius and Papatoution.

The TRP receptors, according to Prof. Daniel Gardner, physiology and biophysics, “mediate some taste sensations, including those of chili peppers and mint.” Those sensations, respectively burning and a cool minty feeling in the mouth, allowed Julius and Papatoution to determine the role of TRP receptors in detecting bodily sensations using capsaicin and menthol.

Capsaicin is a chemical responsible for the fiery sensation felt when eating a spicy chili pepper. In some cases, a hot enough chili pepper will be strong enough to bring tears to the eyes, yet, until the discovery of the TRPV1 channel protein by Julius, it was unclear what exactly was the cause. To feel that hot and painful sensation, a certain protein has to react to that chemical. By testing the reactiveness of various proteins to capsaicin, Julius was able to determine what protein causes us to sense those feelings: the TRPV1 channel protein. 

The discovery of the TRPV1 channel protein’s role in heat and pain detection by Julius and his colleagues later proved to be instrumental in identifying the other channel proteins responsible for sensing temperature. According to Prof. Esther Gardner, neuroscience and physiology, New York University Grossman School of Medicine, Julius’ discovery later allowed him and Ardem Patapoutian to independently discover other TRP receptors such as TRPM8. TRPM8 is the receptor for menthol responsible for sensing the cold. Ultimately, Julius and Patapoutian had “identified the roles of TRP receptors in the senses of pain and thermal event” which was a critical point in their research.

In addition to discovering the temperature-sensing TRP receptors, Patapoutian and his colleagues discovered the receptors responsible for touch — named Piezo1 and Piezo2 — by putting pressure on cells with a pipette. 

Schuering suggests that there’s significant interest in studying the TRP channels in regards to pain and inflammation treatment at Weill Cornell Medicine. It’s likely in the future that this research will expand into “translational research and clinical applications” that will allow us to better understand our physiology.


This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to researchers in two fields of science. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded one half of the award to theoretical physicist Giorgio Parisi, Professor of Quantum Theories at the Sapienza University of Rome, for his discoveries of “hidden patterns in disordered complex materials.” 

Parisi’s work describing equations that govern random physical phenomena, such as the physical patterns exhibited by a rapidly cooled gas, has been revolutionary for understanding complex systems.

According to Prof. James Sethna, physics, Parisi developed “an amazing solution to an outstanding problem … the equilibrium behavior of a ‘spin glass,’” a metal alloy where magnetic atoms, or ‘spins,’ are placed randomly among an array of nonmagnetic atoms and individually struggle to determine which ways to orient due to conflicting magnetic interactions.

This solution has had implications for the field of physics, with Parisi now leading a “huge collaboration” to work on the applications of this solution in glasses, neural networks and other kinds of complex systems, according to Sethna. His approaches to complex problems can even be applied to explain environmental variation, like the hundred-millenium cycle of glacial formation and collapse, occurring during ice ages, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

“The methods developed by Parisi and his many collaborators are a truly new, revealing approach to the dynamics and properties of many materials, algorithms, machine learning methods — all central to our technology,” Sethna said. “They are also solving outstanding open questions in science.”

Earth and atmospheric scientists were also excited this year to learn that the Nobel Prize in Physics had been awarded to climate scientists Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann for their contributions to our understanding of the impact of humanity on our climate, especially factors causing climate change. Manabe currently serves as senior meteorologist at Princeton University, and Hasselmann is a professor emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology.

According to Prof. Natalie Mahowald, earth and atmospheric sciences, Manabe did some of the most important work to create climate models that could be used for understanding and projecting climate change. Hasselmann created a model that linked weather and climate, answering the pressing question of why climate models are reliable and yet weather models are not.

Prof. Flavio Lehner, earth and atmospheric sciences, elaborated on Hasselmann’s prescient contributions to the field of detection and attribution, which focuses on detecting and attributing changes in the climate to driving factors, like carbon dioxide’s effect on global warming. Being able to attribute climate change to greenhouse gas emissions has proven critical to understanding the need to reduce emissions.

Although Hasselmann was recognized for linking weather and climate and attributing climate change to factors like CO2, Lehner said he had mixed feelings about the fact that recognition for climate science advances had been given to just two people.

“I’m not a fan of awards given to individuals in a field that, at least today, is being moved forward very much by teams,” Lehner said. “Hasselmann himself said he would rather have ‘no global warming and no Nobel Prize.’”  

While a Nobel Prize cannot honor all the people involved in solving such a complex and difficult problem, it may at least bring more attention to the problem. “Hopefully this Nobel Prize will invigorate efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly by 2030,” Mahowald said. Perhaps with this level of recognition more resources and brilliant minds will be invested in this field.

“It is great and overdue that climate science is recognized by the physics community and the world in general as a field of maturity and important breakthroughs and contributions to the human endeavor,” Lehner said.