During the first week of October, all the scientific world is anxiously waiting for news from Stockholm when the Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the most coveted and prestigious scientific prize – the Nobel Prize. Traditionally, the first prize goes to the most important research done in the area of physiology and medicine. This year, it was awarded to three American scientists: James E. Rothman from Yale University, Randy W. Schekman from University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas C. Südhof from Stanford University who was born in Germany. They unraveled machinery that works within human bodies – enigmatic mechanism of transportation existing inside human cells.
In his telephone interview given to the Nobel Prize media, happy and surprised Randy W. Schekman described his fascination by the precision with which cells operate and compared it to mechanical machinery.
“One of the major lessons in all of biochemistry, cell biology and molecular medicine is that when proteins operate at the sub-cellular level they behave in certain way, as if they were mechanical machinery. It’s absolutely fascinating. When you … when we study chemistry, the rules of chemistry, electrons and so on, they operate at an even smaller level of atoms and molecules. But when you get to the sort of level of the nanoscale, you find that these objects start behaving as if they were mechanical.”
Fascination by the beauty, and the mysterious complexities of processes occurring in the cells, influenced the last Nobel Prize research.
Our body works as a factory more riveting than many artificial factories from Sci-Fi books. Imagine the factory that creates thousands and thousands identical factories using its own raw materials, engineering and producing workforce, transporting units. The production scale is huge: every day from 50 to 70 billion cells are dying in the adult’s body. All these dead cells must be properly utilized; moreover new cells must be created to replace the old ones.
All cell teams have highly sophisticated tasks. A utilization team provides the raw material from dead cells. An engineering team collects information about cell’s DNA written in special molecules and passes it to a fabrication team that reproduces exactly the same factories as before.
Three scientists who received the 2013 Medicine Nobel Prize, investigated one particular and very important part of this impressive production – transportation mechanism existing within our cells.
When cells produce hormones, cytokines, enzymes molecules miniature bubble-like vesicles deliver them to the needed location inside or outside the cell precisely at the right moment. Randy W. Schekman, James E. Rothman and Thomas C. Südhof discovered this complicated trafficking mechanism and explained molecular principles that regulate it.
In the 1970s, Dr. Schekman, who was first trained as a physicist, unraveled three classes of genes required for vesicle traffic while investigating yeast cells with defective transport machinery.
In 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Rothman discovered how a protein complex affects vesicles to merge with matching target membranes in specific combinations allowing transfer of molecules to precise location.
In 1990s, Dr. Südhof investigated the temporal precision of the process – how nerve signals direct neighbor proteins to bind vesicles to the cell’s outer membrane and release the substances they carry.
In their statement, the Nobel Prize committee explained that revealing the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo was a fundamental discovery in cell physiology that let to better understanding of nature of human diseases and ways of their treatment. Disturbances in this system lead to number of neurological and immunological disorders including immune deficiency disease in children, severe form of epilepsy, as well as diabetes.
The Nobel Prize is worth $1.2 million and will be shared by all three researchers.
By Alsu Salakhutdinov