Richard Axel is University Professor, Columbia University, and investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He holds appointments in the Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, Neuroscience, and the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center. He obtained an A.B. from Columbia College and an M.D. from Johns Hopkins Medical School. In earlier studies with colleagues Michael Wigler and Saul Silverstein, gene transfer techniques were developed that permit the introduction of virtually any gene into any cell. These studies not only allowed for a novel approach to isolate genes but also provided a detailed analysis of how they worked. At the same time, these experiments allowed for the production of an increasingly large number of clinically important proteins. These studies also led to the isolation and functional analysis of a gene for the lymphocyte surface protein, CD4, the cellular receptor for the AIDS virus, HIV.
Axel then began to apply molecular biology to problems in neuroscience with the expectation that genetics could interface with neuroscience to approach the tenuous relationship between genes, behavior and perception. Studies on the logic of the sense of smell revealed over a thousand genes involved in the recognition of odors and provided insight into how genes shape our perception of the sensory environment. Current work centers on how the recognition of odors is translated into an internal representation of sensory quality in the brain and how this representation leads to meaningful thoughts and behavior.