Spicy peppers helped one of this year's Nobel Prize winners learn about the science of touch

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to David Julius at UCSF and molecular neurobiologist Ardem Patapoutian at Scripps Research.

Julius used capsaicin— the spicy compound in peppers— to discover the proteins that respond to heat. He discovered a unique protein. The protein, called TRPV1, responds to both sriracha sauce and hot temperatures. The process of identifying a gene can be long and tedious. Julius and his team identified millions of DNA fragments that might have been responsible for spicy pepper sensation. He put the DNA into cells, tested their response to capsaicin, and eventually identified TRPV1. He used cryo-electron microscopy to construct a stunningly detailed image of the protein.

Liao, M., Cao, E., Julius, D. et al. 2017

The other winner, Patapoutian, doesn't work with heat sensation but pressure and touch sensation. He identified receptors called Piezo1 and Piezo2, named after the Greek word for pressure. The pressure sensation is important in physical touch as well as regulating blood pressure, bladder control, and proprioception (the body's ability to sense its position in space).

As usual, the prize was announced in the middle of the night (2:30am California time). The Nobel committee couldn't reach Patapoutian right away, so they called his 92-year-old father who was able to get ahold of him and let him know the good news. Later in the day, Patapoutian lamented on Twitter that his car had to be towed today of all days, posting a picture of his custom license plate with a charming vanity plate— "piezos," the name of the proteins he discovered.