Richard Axel

Richard Axel ( born July 2, 1946 in New York) is an American physician. For the study of the olfactory system in 2004, he got the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Linda B. Buck.


Richard Axel was born in 1946 in New York City. Until 1967 he studied at Columbia University in New York and then went to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, where he received his doctorate in 1970. In 1978 he became Professor of Pathology, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Columbia University and is since 1984 working group leader of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at this university.

In 1991, his collaboration with Linda Buck, who previously worked as a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory. Together, they identified about 1,000 genes that are responsible for the odor perception.

He is married to the neuroscientist Cornelia Bargmann.


The early studies by Richard Axel were focused on the potential of gene transfer to certain cells in almost any other cell. It was primarily concerned with the transfer of genes for production of active principles that should be inserted into bacteria. He also dealt with the HIV virus and examined the process by which the viruses invade healthy cells.

The later and current research by Richard Axel deals with the question of how stimuli are transmitted to the brain. He concentrates, together with Linda Buck, on the field of olfactory stimuli, ie the processing of olfactory stimuli. It examines the emergence and development of odorant receptors and the processing of olfactory stimuli in the brain and their conversion into reactions, thoughts and behaviors.

He could see that her sense of smell within different animal groups is very similar, by comparing the genetics of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster with that of mammals. His research group was able to identify a gene family of about 1,000 genes that are associated with the perception of smell by encoding different odorant receptors. All of these receptors lie in the olfactory mucosa and nerve are directly connected to the olfactory bulb, which is the brain region that is responsible for the perception of smells. This region leads the impressions on the one hand in the cerebral cortex where they are for thinking processes available, on the other hand also to the limbic system, which mainly unconsciously influenced feelings and moods.

Through independent studies Axel and Buck were able to show that each neuron activates only one receptor type and that in the olfactory mucosa, the same structure receptors are distributed in a random pattern in the olfactory bulb, however, all are perceived in the same region. In this way, the brain a composite odor sensation from different areas of the mucous membranes.

Selected prices and appreciations

Richard Axel was honored for his work with several prizes and other honors, including:

  • Johns Hopkins Medical Society Research Award ( 1969)
  • The Eli Lilly Award in Biological Chemistry (1983 )
  • New York Academy of Sciences Award in Biological and Medical Sciences ( 1984)
  • Richard Lounsbery Award, National Academy of Sciences (1989 )
  • Unilever Science Award (shared with Linda B. Buck, 1996)
  • New York City Mayor 's Award for Excellence in Science and Technology (1997)
  • Bristol -Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research (1998)
  • Alexander Hamilton Award from Columbia University (1999)
  • NY Academy of Medicine Medal for Distinguished Contributions in Biomedical Sciences (2000)
  • Gairdner Foundation International Award for Achievement in Neuroscience ( 2003)
  • Perl / UNC Neuroscience Prize (shared with Linda Buck, 2002)
  • Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (shared with Linda Buck, 2004)

He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, since 2003 also of the American Philosophical Society since 1983.