Fred Hutch, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, and UW Medicine Complete Restructure of Partnership

Learn More

Spotlight on Linda Buck

Opening New Doors to Understanding the Brain

Linda Buck, Neurobiologist

The reawakening of a long-forgotten memory by the scent of spring lilacs in bloom or an apple pie fresh from the oven can be one of our most powerful human responses -- and one of the most mysterious.

How do we differentiate thousands of distinct odors and how do our brains perceive and remember them? Dr. Linda Buck set out to understand the sense of smell, a monumental scientific question that had long evaded explanation.

Through years of intensive research, Buck became the first to identify a family of genes that control the olfactory system, a complex network that governs our sense of smell. The genes are blueprints for a family of smell-receptor proteins in the nose that work in different combinations so that the brain can identify a nearly infinite array of odors — much like the letters of the alphabet are combined to form different words.

Linda Buck, 2018
Linda Buck, 2018 Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Buck determined that each odor-sensing cell in the nose possesses only one type of odorant receptor, and each receptor can detect a limited number of odorant substances. She then used this knowledge to determine how the identities of different odors are perceived by the brain to allow us to sense distinct odors. In later studies, she and her colleagues uncovered a sensory map in a part of the brain known as the olfactory bulb and that is virtually identical in all individuals.

Uncovering how this system works has been fundamental to understanding the machinery that controls the relay of sensory signals from the world around us to the central nervous system.

“Supporting Basic Science is a way that you can support the discovery of how systems work; this is critical to developing ways to prevent and cure disease.”

These landmark contributions to human biology open new doors to studying the brain and have numerous implications for health. They may even hold the key to understanding behaviors such as fear and aggression.

For her groundbreaking discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system, Buck received the 2004 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Video: Basically Amazing featuring Dr. Linda Buck
RELATED RESOURCES

Researcher News

More News >
A year of research dominated by the coronavirus Scientists applied diverse expertise to pandemic in 2020 while advancing discoveries and cures for cancer December 21, 2020
A new guidebook to the brain 'Connect-seq' technique overlays key signaling information from individual neurons on brain road maps March 10, 2020
Good News at Fred Hutch: Immunotherapy pioneer named chair, Nobel laureate keynotes Celebrating faculty and staff achievements June 24, 2016
Fred Hutch president elected to American Academy of Arts & Sciences Dr. Gary Gilliland named as new member of country’s oldest learned societies April 20, 2016