Linda B. Buck, along with collaborator Richard Axel, determined that most of the details they uncovered about the sense of smell are virtually identical in rats, humans and other animals, although humans have only about one-third the number in rats. The work helped boost scientific interest in the possible existence of human pheromones, odorant molecules known to trigger sexual activity and certain other behavior in many animals, and won Buck and Axel the Nobel Prize in 2004.
Early Life and Education
Linda Brown Buck was born on January 29, 1947, in Seattle, Washington. The middle daughter of an electrical engineer and a stay-at-home mother, she was inspired by her parents’ interests in inventing and solving puzzles.
In 1975, Buck graduated from the University of Washington with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and microbiology. She left her native Seattle for Dallas to pursue at a doctorate at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, earning her Ph.D. in immunology in 1980.
From 1980 to 1984, Buck was a postdoctorate fellow at Columbia University. She initially worked with Benvenuto Pernis on immunology research, and later joined Richard Axel in his study of the nervous system of a sea snail. Buck then set out to understand the workings of the olfactory system. Although it had been established that humans and other mammals were capable of detecting some 10,000 distinct odors, the underlying mechanisms of this process remained a mystery.
Over the course of several years, Buck uncovered a large collection of genes that are related to olfactory receptor cells. The cells, which are located in the upper part of the lining of the nose, each host a single odorant receptor. Before her research, the existence of these receptors had not been determined. She and Axel published a paper on their discovery in 1991.
Nobel Prize Winner
Through her research, Buck was able to determine how the brain processed different types of smells. She and her fellow researchers pieced together a portrait of how the brain's olfactory bulb functioned. In 2004, Buck and Axel were named co-recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system."
By this time, Buck was working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. She continues to work in the center's basic sciences division, and also serves as an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
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