David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian of the United States have been awarded the Medicine Nobel Price for their advances in understanding how the human nervous system perceives temperature.
The jury believed the discoveries help understand how heat, cold and mechanical force can trigger nerve impulses which allow us to perceive and adapt to the world.
Julius and his colleague of Lebanese and Armenian origin were praised for their revolutionary discoveries, Nobel Prize curators in Stockholm announced.
Julius, a professor at the University of California, used capsaicin, the active component in chilli peppers, to identify the nerve sensors that allow the skin to respond to heat, explained Patrik Ernfors of the Nobel Committee.
For his part, the Scripps Research professor in California Patapoutian identified sensors in cells that respond to mechanical stimulation. This solves one of nature's secrets, said Thomas Perlmann, secretary-general of the Nobel Committee.
“In our daily life we take our senses for granted, but how are nerve impulses unleashed to perceive temperature and pressure? It is the question that this year's Nobel laureates solved,” summed up the jury.
Julius and Patapoutian will share a cheque for one million euros but each one will receive his gold medal.
This announcement came very much to the surprise of those who had foreseen the developers of mRNA vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 were favoured to win, alongside those whose researches were focused on cell adhesion, epigenetics, resistance to antibiotics and new treatments in rheumatology.
Last year's award went to three scientists who discovered the hepatitis C virus, which wreaks havoc on the liver. His achievement led to the development of cures for the deadly disease and diagnostic tests to prevent it from spreading through blood banks.
Other Nobel Prize winners are to be announced throughout this week.
Although the announcement of the Nobel 2021 is made this week as planned, for the second year in a row the winners will not attend the awards ceremony on December 10 in Stockholm due to the coronavirus epidemic, something never seen in peacetime since 1924.
While the 2020 award was handed out as the pandemic raged, this is the first time the entire selection process has taken place under the shadow of Covid-19.
Nominations close each year at the end of January, and at that time last year, the novel coronavirus was still largely confined to China.
The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.