October 6, 2004 3:22 PM PDT

Nothing fishy about sweet smell of Nobel success

A Nobel Prize awarded this week carries a whiff of a spoof science honor given late last month--for research into fish flatulence.

The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was bestowed on Monday on two U.S. researchers, Richard Axel and Linda Buck, for their work on the human sense of smell--specifically, on "odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system." The honor was announced just days after the "Ig Nobel" award for a bizarre breakthrough in biology was handed to researchers who discovered that herring appear to communicate by "bubble release," also known as "farting."

But people shouldn't sniff out a connection between the awards, said Lawrence Dill, a biology professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada and one of the Ig Nobel fish research winners. Dill on Wednesday said that the bubbles in question that are emitted from a herring's anal region come from the fish's "swim bladder" and are not digestive gas. "As far as I know, it has no smell," he said.

Dill couldn't rule out that gas odor plays a role in herring communication. But he said it's more likely that sounds made by rapid expulsion of the bubbles carry meaning.

The annual Ig Nobel awards aim to find fun in the results of scientific research as well as pique people's curiosity. The prize ceremony, held at Harvard University and sponsored in part by the Annals of Improbable Research journal, also lauded scholars who explored the dynamics of hula-hoop use and recognized the efforts of two men who patented the "comb over" technique for masking baldness.

This year's official Nobel Prizes are being handed out this month. On Wednesday, the Nobel organization gave an award in chemistry to two Israeli researchers and a U.S. researcher for work on cell proteins. Tuesday, the Nobel Prize in physics went to three U.S. researchers for work related to the so-called strong force that is the dominant one in the atomic nucleus.

In giving the award for smell research to Axel, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Columbia University, and Buck, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institutet recognized physiological rather than medical research.

"The basic principles for recognizing and remembering about 10,000 different odors were not understood," the assembly said in a statement. "This year's Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine have solved this problem and in a series of pioneering studies clarified how our olfactory system works."

 

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