Richard Axel (born July 2, 1946) is a molecular biologist and University Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University and investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His work on the olfactory system won him and Linda Buck, a former postdoctoral research scientist in his group, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004.

Education and early life

Born in New York City, New York, Axel graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1963,[2] received his A.B. in 1967 from Columbia University, and his M.D. in 1971 from Johns Hopkins University. He returned to Columbia later that year and became a full professor in 1978.

Research and career

Richard Axel circa 2008

During the late 1970s, Axel, along with microbiologist Saul J. Silverstein and geneticist Michael H. Wigler, discovered a technique of cotransformation, a process which allows foreign DNA to be inserted into a host cell to produce certain proteins.[3][4][5][6]Patents, now colloquially referred to as the "Axel patents", covering this technique were filed for February 1980 and were issued in August 1983.[7] As a fundamental process in recombinant DNA research as performed at pharmaceutical and biotech companies, this patent proved quite lucrative for Columbia University, earning it almost $100 million a year at one time, and a top spot on the list of top universities by licensing revenue.[7] The Axel patents expired in August 2000.

In their landmark paper published in 1991,[8] Buck and Axel cloned olfactory receptors, showing that they belong to the family of G protein coupled receptors. By analyzing rat DNA, they estimated that there were approximately one thousand different genes for olfactory receptors in the mammalian genome. This research opened the door to the genetic and molecular analysis of the mechanisms of olfaction. In their later work, Buck and Axel have shown that each olfactory receptor neuron remarkably only expresses one kind of olfactory receptor protein and that the input from all neurons expressing the same receptor is collected by a single dedicated glomerulus of the olfactory bulb.[9]

Axel's primary research interest is on how the brain interprets the sense of smell, specifically mapping the parts of the brain that are sensitive to specific olfactory receptors. He holds the titles of University Professor at Columbia University, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics and of Pathology at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In addition to contributions to neurobiology, Axel has also made seminal discoveries in immunology, and his lab was one of the first to identify the link between HIV infection and immunoreceptor CD4.

In addition to making contributions as a scientist, Axel has also mentored many leading scientists in the field of neurobiology. Seven of his trainees have become members of the National Academy of Sciences, and currently six of his trainees are affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's investigator and early scientist award programs.

Axel has published key papers describing DNA transfection,[10][11] a critical tool for the entire revolution in biology, in which genes can be modified and then stably transferred into cells. These papers were the basis for the "Axel patent" which at one time brought Columbia University as much as $100 million per year.[7]

Awards and honors

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Axel has won numerous awards and honors. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1983.[12] Axel was awarded the Double Helix Medal in 2007. CSHL Double Helix Medal Honoree and was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 2014. His nomination reads:

Richard Axel is a distinguished molecular biologist and neuroscientist. He developed gene transfer techniques that permit the introduction of virtually any gene into any cell permitting the production of a large number of clinically important proteins and leading to the isolation of a gene for CD4, the cellular receptor for the AIDS virus, HIV. He then applied molecular biology to neuroscience revealing over a thousand genes involved in the recognition of odours, a discovery for which he shared the Nobel Prize in 2004. He currently explores how odour recognition is translated into internal representations in the brain.[1]

Personal life

Axel is married to fellow scientist and olfaction pioneer Cornelia Bargmann.[13] Previously, he had been married to Ann Axel, who is a social worker at Columbia University Medical Center. Owing to his tall stature, Axel played basketball during high school.[14]


  1. ^ a b "Professor Richard Axel ForMemRS". London: The Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2014-12-26. 
  2. ^ Eisner, Robin (Winter 2005). "Richard Axel: One of the Nobility in Science". P&S (Columbia University). Retrieved 31 October 2007. 
  3. ^ Wigler, M; Sweet, R; Sim, G. K.; Wold, B; Pellicer, A; Lacy, E; Maniatis, T; Silverstein, S; Axel, R (1979). "Transformation of mammalian cells with genes from procaryotes and eucaryotes". Cell 16 (4): 777–85. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(79)90093-x. PMID 222468. 
  4. ^ Wigler, M; Pellicer, A; Silverstein, S; Axel, R; Urlaub, G; Chasin, L (1979). "DNA-mediated transfer of the adenine phosphoribosyltransferase locus into mammalian cells". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 76 (3): 1373–6. doi:10.1073/pnas.76.3.1373. PMC 383253. PMID 286319. 
  5. ^ Wigler, M; Silverstein, S; Lee, L. S.; Pellicer, A; Cheng, Yc; Axel, R (1977). "Transfer of purified herpes virus thymidine kinase gene to cultured mouse cells". Cell 11 (1): 223–32. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(77)90333-6. PMID 194704. 
  6. ^ Maddon, P. J.; Dalgleish, A. G.; McDougal, J. S.; Clapham, P. R.; Weiss, R. A.; Axel, R (1986). "The T4 gene encodes the AIDS virus receptor and is expressed in the immune system and the brain". Cell 47 (3): 333–48. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(86)90590-8. PMID 3094962. 
  7. ^ a b c Colaianni, A; Cook-Deegan, R (2009). "Columbia University's Axel patents: Technology transfer and implications for the Bayh-Dole Act". Milbank Quarterly 87 (3): 683–715. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0009.2009.00575.x. PMC 2750841. PMID 19751286. 
  8. ^ Buck, L.; Axel, R. (1991). "A novel multigene family may encode odorant receptors: A molecular basis for odor recognition". Cell 65 (1): 175–187. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(91)90418-X. PMID 1840504. 
  9. ^ Mombaerts, P; Wang, F; Dulac, C; Chao, S. K.; Nemes, A; Mendelsohn, M; Edmondson, J; Axel, R (1996). "Visualizing an olfactory sensory map". Cell 87 (4): 675–86. doi:10.1016/s0092-8674(00)81387-2. PMID 8929536. 
  10. ^ Pellicer, A; Wigler, M; Axel, R; Silverstein, S (1978). "The transfer and stable integration of the HSV thymidine kinase gene into mouse cells". Cell 14 (1): 133–41. doi:10.1016/0092-8674(78)90308-2. PMID 208776. 
  11. ^ Pellicer, A; Robins, D; Wold, B; Sweet, R; Jackson, J; Lowy, I; Roberts, J. M.; Sim, G. K.; Silverstein, S; Axel, R (1980). "Altering genotype and phenotype by DNA-mediated gene transfer". Science 209 (4463): 1414–22. doi:10.1126/science.7414320. PMID 7414320. 
  12. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 28 April 2011. 
  13. ^ Axel R (December 2004). "Richard Axel – Autobiography. From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 2004, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 2005". 
  14. ^ Axel R (December 2004). "Richard Axel – Autobiography. From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 2004, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 2005". 

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