Columbia University in the City of New York

Credit: Don Hamerman

Richard Axel, MD

University Professor and Nobel Laureate; Professor of Pathology and Biochemistry; Codirector of Columbia's Zuckerman Institute; Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute


Codirector Richard Axel won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for his groundbreaking work in decoding olfaction, our sense of smell. Specifically, Dr. Axel identified more than 1,000 special receptors in the nose that transmit olfactory information to the brain.

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About Richard Axel

Richard Axel is a Nobel laureate, a University Professor, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Columbia University Medical Center and a codirector of Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Dr. Axel obtained an AB from Columbia College and an MD from Johns Hopkins Medical School. In earlier studies, Dr. Axel and his colleagues, Michael Wigler and Saul Silverstein, developed gene transfer techniques that permit the introduction of virtually any gene into any cell. These studies not only allowed for a novel approach to isolate genes but also provided a detailed analysis of how they worked. At the same time, these experiments allowed for the production of an increasingly large number of clinically important proteins. These studies also led to the isolation and functional analysis of a gene for the lymphocyte surface protein, CD4, the cellular receptor for the AIDS virus, HIV.

Dr. Axel then began to apply molecular biology to problems in neuroscience with the expectation that genetics could interface with neuroscience to approach the tenuous relationship between genes, behavior and perception. His studies on the logic of the sense of smell revealed over a thousand genes involved in the recognition of odors and provided insight into how genes shape our perception of the sensory environment; this research earned him the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Axel’s current work centers on how the recognition of odors is translated into an internal representation of sensory quality in the brain and how this representation leads to meaningful thoughts and behavior.

Videos Featuring Richard Axel

Scents and Sensibility: Representations of the Olfactory World in the Brain