Axel was born to Jewish parents in New York City and graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1963. In 1967, he earned his A.B. from Columbia University and later graduated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore with an M.D. Upon completion of his studies in Baltimore, Axel returned to Columbia and became a full professor there in 1978.
In 1991, Axel jointly worked with Linda Buck to publish a fundamental paper in which they described the very large family of about one thousand genes for odorant receptors. Axel and Buck have since worked independent of each other, and they have in several elegant, often parallel, studies clarified the olfactory system, from the molecular level to the organization of the cells. Independently, Axel and Buck showed that every single olfactory receptor cell expresses one and only one of the odorant receptor genes. Thus, there are as many types of olfactory receptor cells as there are odorant receptors. It was possible to show, by registering the electrical signals coming from single olfactory receptor cells, that each cell does not react only to one odorous substance, but to several related molecules – albeit with varying intensity.
The finding that each olfactory receptor cell only expresses one single odorant receptor gene was highly unexpected. Axel and Buck continued by determining the organization of the first relay station in the brain. The olfactory receptor cell sends its nerve processes to the olfactory bulb, where there are some 2,000 well-defined microregions, glomeruli. There are thus about twice as many glomeruli as the types of olfactory receptor cells.
For their combined work and efforts in this regard, Axel and Buck were awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the official motivation for prize being summarized as: "for their discoveries of odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system."
Richard Axel is married to Cornelia Bargmann and resides in the United States.