After the announcement that Ardem Patapoutian, a Beirut-born Armenian-American neuroscientist, was a co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the world’s scientific and media circles were eager to explore the contributions that led him to win this prestigious award.
The interest went beyond knowing the secrets of his discoveries of receptors of temperature and touch in the human body, to trace his life and scientific career, which encompass the story of a multi-identity immigrant of Armenian heritage whose life was shaped in part by an Arab country’s suffering and civil war.
A molecular biologist who specializes in the sensory nervous system, Patapoutian was born to Armenian parents in Beirut in 1967 and grew up there during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). He began his scientific education at the American University of Beirut, where he studied chemistry for a year before war conditions and his detention by armed militants forced him to hurry to leave, at the age of 18.
He and his family moved to Los Angeles, in the United States, where Patapoutian received his Bachelor of Science from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1990, and obtained his Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from the California Institute of Technology in 1996. He is currently a professor at the Scripps Research Institute, in California.
“I certainly could never have imagined this day. More than that, I could never have imagined this life in scienceArdem Patapoutian
Patapoutian and the co-winner of this year’s prize, David Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, were honored for discoveries they made independently of each other about how the human body perceives temperature and touch.
“Dr. Patapoutian, together with Dr. David Julius, unlocked one of the mysteries of life, how do we sense temperature and pressure,” Peter Schultz, president and CEO of the Scripps Research Institute, said in a news release. He went on to describe Patapoutian as “an extraordinary scientist, mentor, and colleague and a wonderful person.”
The release quoted Patapoutian as saying, “I certainly could never have imagined this day. More than that, I could never have imagined this life in science.”
Simple Questions, Complex Discoveries
Ardem Patapoutian began his research with a fundamental question about how mechanical stimuli such as pressure and touch are perceived. Although it seems a simple question, Patapoutian’s tireless pursuit ended with ongoing and renewed discoveries.
His most prominent discovery is that of a new class of receptors in the skin and internal organs that respond to mechanical stimuli. Later, Patapoutian and collaborators in his lab discovered how these receptors control a wide range of body organs’ biological needs, and their role in intercellular communication.
“We talk about a key that unlocks a door that opens to a room. These receptors are the key to the door of understanding biology and disease,” Patapoutian said in an interview with Scripps Research.
The ion channel “Piezo1,” one of the receptors discovered by Patapoutian, plays a role in protecting against malaria and affecting the amount of iron in the blood, he said. The receptors may also be involved in tracking how much the stomach stretches during a meal, and how much food passes through the intestine during digestion.
Moreover, Patapoutian’s group has found other ion channels involved in the perception of physical and chemical stimuli, including TRPA1, which plays an essential role in pain and inflammation, SWELL1, which maintains cell volume at equilibrium with the fluids around it, and GPR68, a cell mechanoreceptor that detects blood flow.
Teamwork, Not Individual Achievement
A big break in his lab’s work on these discoveries came more than a decade ago, in 2009. Bertrand Coste, then a low-key member of Patapoutian’s research team, knocked on the door of the scientist’s office and announced he had solved a piece of the puzzle. “I think I’ve got it,” Coste said.
At first, Patapoutian wasn’t excited. They walked back to the lab together, so Coste could demonstrate. He made sure of the accuracy of Coste’s findings and the team pursued this line of research for years.
Emphasizing the role of his team, the Nobel Prize laureate was keen to mention his collaborators’ names, praising their efforts in creating his lab’s achievements. “Oftentimes these prizes are given to one or two people, but I want to emphasize that there is a whole field of people working in this area,” Patapoutian said in the interview with Scripps Research. “Specifically in my lab, there’s a big group of young, enthusiastic, smart scientists, graduate students and postdocs who actually do the work.”
Praise From Armenia and Beirut
Armenian President Armen Sarkissian sent a letter to congratulate his compatriot on winning the Nobel Prize. “I am very happy for your great success, which, I think, we all consider one of the greatest achievements of our nation,” Sarkissian wrote. “As a former scientist, I deeply understand the weight of your efforts and hard work, due to which, combined with your great talent, the world of science has been enriched with one more achievement,” he added.
“I am very happy for your great success, which, I think, we all consider one of the greatest achievements of our nation.”Armen Sarkissian
President of Armenia
The American University of Beirut, in an official statement, also expressed pride in the achievement of its former student. “Patapoutian was a chemistry major at AUB 1985-86 and was placed on the dean’s honor list before he was compelled to leave because of the war,” it said.
In an autobiographical essay he wrote last year, after he and Julius won the Kavli Prize, Patapoutian remembered his growing up years in Beirut. He wrote of practicing various sports, including basketball and table tennis; of visits to the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains around Beirut; and of “the beautiful campus of the American University of Beirut, where I attended one year of undergraduate classes as a pre-med major.”
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When Patapoutian left Beirut for the United States, his dream was to study medicine and become a doctor. But laboratories attracted the young student, prompting him to switch to research work, specifically biology research.
Patapoutian looks at biology research with pride and gratitude, and expressed appreciation in his essay last year for the impact biology research has on human health. He also expressed gratitude for his family and his wife, whom he described as his “intellectual and moral compass.”
“I acknowledge the extreme privilege to be a scientist,” he concluded. “The intellectual nourishment, the richly diverse universe of co-conspirators, the beautiful places around the world where science has taken me, the wonders and mysteries of the human body–what joy, what fortune.”
Following is a selection of articles from Al-Fanar Media’s archives about researchers working in the Arab world.
- “Most Arab-World Researchers Want to Leave, a New Survey Finds”
- “Not Just Money: Arab-Region Researchers Face a Complex Web of Barriers”
- “Behind the Numbers: Arab Women in Research”
- “The Arab World’s Often Overlooked Space Research”
- “Inspiring Youth: A Personal Tribute to Ahmed Zewail”
- “Arab Science Needs More Respect”