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The 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine: Can this discovery have some derived benefit for Climate Change?

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Medicine is awarded for discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch. Can this discovery have some derived benefit for Climate Change as well?

Figure- Nobel Laureate used capsaicin from chili peppers to identify TRPV1, an ion channel activated by painful heat.

Climate Change is making front page news all over the globe. The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2021 is for research in Climate Change and if we closely analyse the Nobel Prize in Medicine then it also has some connection to climate change. The ground-breaking discoveries of the TRPV1 (newly discovered capsaicin receptor) is the breakthrough that allowed us to understand how differences in temperature can induce electrical signals in the nervous system.

An interdisciplinary approach has always benefited one and all as its basis is, as expressed in this quote by Aristotle, “the whole is more than sum of its parts.” So, how this discovery in medical sciences could have some silver lining on this energy sector where heating and cooling related consumption takes a significant percentage -- the reason could be as mentioned by Nobel Prize Laureates -- our ability to sense heat, cold and touch is essential for survival and supports our interaction with the world around us. In our daily lives we take these sensations for granted but how are nerve impulses initiated so that temperature and pressure can be perceived? This question has been solved by this year’s Nobel Prize laureates.

In the years to come, digitalization in all sectors will exponentially increase demand of cooling which is necessity of data centres which in turn will require more energy. India’s cooling demand is expected to grow 8-10 times in the next 15-20 years leading to increased energy requirements which is unimaginable and needs some action as it will result in more GHG emissions.

However, development has to happen and energy efficiency and optimization are the way to go.

As a Nobel laureate has stated, “Knowing how our body senses these changes is fundamental because once we know those molecules, they can be targeted. It’s like finding a lock, and now we know the precise keys that will be necessary to unlock it.”

Medical science can help us understand that a thermoreceptor, which is a non-specialised sense receptor, that codes absolute and relative changes in temperature. If a good interdisciplinary approach between medical sciences and engineering is applied this research can help us also assess need for cooling and then build policies around that which at present is more observation based (empirical) and takes into account impact of indoor environment on human perception of thermal comfort - both physiologically and psychologically except the adaptive thermal comfort which started to look at how our physiological responses may be conditioned by our repeated and long exposure to outdoor environment. This can allow technology companies and building designers to have wider thermal comfort bands to work with. Climates that are likely to be 2-4ºC warmer than what we have experienced as humans. It will be a matter of survival for the humans. Heat stress related research will have to become multi-disciplinary and must benefit all.

Pankaj K. Gupta



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