Charles S. Zuker, Ph.D., Hhmi Investigator, To Join Columbia University Medical Center Faculty

February 10, 2009

NEW YORK (February 10, 2009) — Charles S. Zuker, Ph.D., an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute whose research focuses on taste as a way to study how the brain processes sensory experiences, will join the Columbia University Medical Center faculty on July 1 as professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics and of neuroscience in the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Currently, he is the Kevin and Tamara Kinsella Chair of Neurobiology and Distinguished Professor at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, where he is a faculty member in the biology and neurosciences departments.

Dr. Zuker studies the senses to reveal how the brain can turn reception into perception by asking these questions: How do physical and chemical stimuli that we experience through sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell turn into signals that neurons transmit to the brain? How does light hitting your eye change into a chemical signal that makes you squint? How do sound waves hitting the eardrum transform into words that you “hear” in your head? Why does a drop of lemon juice on the tongue make you wrinkle your nose?

His research has uncovered taste receptors for four of five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (the savory taste of protein), and he is working now to uncover the receptors for salt. He changed conventional wisdom of how the tongue processes taste by demonstrating that each taste cell is hard-wired for one specific taste and sends one signal to the brain. Previously, scientists had thought that each taste cell could process multiple tastes and that a complex, mixed signal would be sent to the brain for each one. Using mouse models, Dr. Zuker and his research team demonstrated that a cell’s taste signals do not change, even when one receptor is swapped out for another. For example, if the receptor from a sweet cell is replaced with a receptor that is normally activated by bitter taste, they showed that bitter now tastes sweet.

Dr. Zuker discoveries are being used to search for chemicals that could make foods with less sugar taste just as sweet, reducing the amount of sugar in many of the foods we eat. With rates of obesity and diabetes reaching epidemic levels, this type of chemical enhancement could potentially help reduce the number of calories in many foods. A similar type of chemical could also be used to reduce the amount of blood pressure-linked salt in many foods and other related applications. In 1999, Dr. Zuker founded Senomyx, a company that looks to identify novel flavors and taste enhancers for the food and beverage industry.

“We are honored that Charles Zuker will continue his important research in taste and sensory signaling as a member of our Columbia faculty,” says Lee Goldman, M.D., executive vice president of Columbia University and dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “Our medical center proudly continues to attract the best and brightest minds in science today, and having Dr. Zuker join us reinforces our ability to build on our strong foundation of great scientific achievement and potential.”

“Neuroscience is at an exciting crossroads, with research on the horizon that can fundamentally enhance our understanding of brain function and disease. We are delighted to have Dr. Zuker join the Columbia neuroscience community to continue his ground-breaking work on taste sensation,” says Steven A. Siegelbaum, Ph.D., chair and professor of neuroscience and pharmacology, and investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“Charles Zuker is a terrific addition to our department – a community of outstanding scholars bound by mutual respect and by a common quest of discovery in biology,” says Arthur G. Palmer, Ph.D., acting chair of the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics. “We look forward to collaborating with him on our continued quest is to uncover the hidden, to bring order to chaos, and to think deeply.”

“The opportunity to work closely with Columbia researchers working on related research in sensory signaling and with a shared view of neuroscience, such as Richard Axel and Tom Jessell, is what drew me to this position,” says Dr. Zuker. “I believe in constantly challenging our research to look for answers to unanswered questions and to scrutinize traditional thinking within science. Columbia University Medical Center’s intellectually rigorous environment is a stimulating new home for my research.”

Dr. Zuker started college at age 16, at the Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso in Chile. At age 20, he entered graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By age 26, he had earned his Ph.D. in molecular biology and joined Gerald Rubin’s laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, as a postdoctoral researcher. He joined the UCSD faculty in 1986 and became an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1989.

He is an elected member of three prestigious professional associations: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine. He has been honored with the Alfred P. Sloan Award in Neurosciences, the Cogan Award for Vision Research from the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, and Columbia University’s W. Alden Spencer Award.

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, pre-clinical and clinical research, in medical and health sciences education, and in patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Established in 1767, Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons was the first institution in the country to grant the M.D. degree and is among the most selective medical schools in the country. Columbia University Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and state and one of the largest in the United States. For more information, please visit

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Charles Zuker, Columbia University, UCSD, Universidad Catolica