Two Americans won the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for discovering how people can recognize and remember an estimated 10,000 odors, from spoiled meat to a lover’s perfume.

Dr. Richard Axel, 58, of Columbia University and Linda B. Buck, 57, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle revealed odor-sensing proteins in the nose and traced how they send their information to the brain.

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, said it chose the pair for the $1.3 million prize not because of any practical payoff from the work, but simply because they enhanced understanding of “the most enigmatic of our senses.”

For two scientists to single-handedly map one of the major human senses is unique in the history of science, Nobel assembly chairman Goeran Hansson said.

“It’s pretty amazing to be able to sit here in the 21st century and reward discoveries that explain one of the human senses,” he said.

Buck said she had not even known she was under consideration. “People have said things like, ‘You should win the Nobel Prize,'” she said. “I feel very honored, of course.”

Axel told Swedish Public Radio he had not been thinking about winning the prize. “I think about my science,” he said.

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