Scents and Sensibility

Tim Stoddard in Columbia Magazine:

Nobel Prize–winning molecular biologist Richard Axel followed his nose to the mysteries of smell and cracked the two great problems of olfaction: how the nose recognizes thousands of odors and how the brain knows what it’s smelling.

Slumping into the gray leather couch in his office, one leg draped over the armrest, Richard Axel admits that he was not the first to clone a nose. That distinction belongs to Woody Allen, who in 1973 regenerated a dead tyrant from a disembodied schnoz in the movie Sleeper. Axel, a University Professor of biochemistry, molecular biophysics, and pathology, shrugs and says, “Woody thought of it before me.”

Allen’s comic device has a whiff of scientific plausibility, as Axel recently demonstrated when he and others grew a mouse from a nose. To be accurate, the mouse was a clone, created by removing the genetic material from a nerve cell deep inside another mouse’s nose and injecting it into an empty egg. This elegant experiment was not really an homage to Sleeper, although Axel does refer to the zany movie in lectures on the science of smell. Nor was it a laboratory stunt. It was an important step toward unlocking the mysterious mechanisms of the mammalian olfactory system.

More here.