Cell Biologists win the 2013 Nobel Prize!

I just saw the CNN story this morning about the announcement for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This year’s laureates are James Rothman of Yale University, Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas Südhof of Stanford University. All three scientists have been classically trained cell biologists who have contributed tremendously to our understanding of the movement of material inside of living cells, which is a field I have been following for most of my scientific career (all 3 of these scientists appear in the bibliography of that paper from 1997).

I have been interested in Randy Schekman’s work for the longest, dating back to when I first started in graduate school at Case Western Reserve University in the late 1980’s. His lab was interested in dissecting the eukaryotic secretory pathway in the 1970’s, and used the model yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to help understand it. To accomplish this, he studied a panel of temperature sensitive mutants of yeast that had a very specific part of the secretory pathway blocked when you threw the on-off switch by raising the temperature. Because the mutants were at sequential spots along the pathway, if you made a double mutant (i.e. a mutant that had two mutations in the pathway), the resulting mutant demonstrated the phenotype of the earlier mutation in the pathway. By doing this, you could tease out the individual events in the secretory pathway using genetic tools.

I heard James Rothman give a seminar also when I was in graduate school, where he summarized the current understanding of the secretory pathway from a different perspective. Rothman’s lab was interested in the same thing but used a biochemical approach in mammalian cells. By growing large amounts of mammalian tissue culture cells and purifying individual protein components, these components could be added back together in a test tube to determine the way that they interacted with one another. I recall distinctly during Rothman’s talk when he described a tremendous moment of insight when it was realized that the genetic elements studied by the yeast cell biologists were essentially the same thing as the protein elements studied by the mammalian cell biologists.

I became familiar with Thomas Südhof’s work as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Virginia in the mid-1990’s. His lab was interested in a phenomenon that we were also interested in: how does the process of exocytosis enable materials to be released from vesicles, specifically at the synapse of a neuron? He also used a biochemical and cell biological approach to purify components of synapses and reconstituted them in vitro to dissect the parts of the pathway. He was particularly interested in a difficult problem in cell biology, which was to understand how two distinct membranes could be fused together. This problem is not trivial. Although one would think that two hydrophobic membranes might readily associate easily with one another, it is hard to rearrange the separate lipid bilayers in two membranes to bridge each other and fuse.

All three researchers have been recognized today “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells” using parallel approaches in genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology. Science of course builds on the work of others, and this recognition today echoes the 1999 Nobel Prize awarded to Günter Blobel, and the 1974 Nobel Prize to Albert Claude, Christian de Duve, and George Palade. Today’s recognition highlights our ever deeper understanding of the fundamental relatedness of all living things.

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About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on October 7, 2013, in A bit 'o history, Meta. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Cell Biologists win the 2013 Nobel Prize!.

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