Jan-Feb 2014 ASCB Newsletter - page 12-13

Winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology
and ASCB stalwarts Randy Schekman and James Rothman
brought some of their laureate magic to New Orleans
December 16 when they addressed a special plenary session
supported by Sanofi at the ASCB Annual Meeting. The talks
had been billed as direct from Stockholm even though the
exigencies of modern airline routing gave both Schekman of
the University of California, Berkeley, and Rothman of Yale a
chance to metaphorically change their shoes at home before
heading to Louisiana. Their joint ASCB Annual Meeting
appearance, however, was their first scientific stop since Nobel
The actual talks that Schekman and Rothman delivered to
the large crowd gathered in the Great Hall closely followed the
Nobel Lectures that they had delivered in Stockholm at the
Karolinska Institutet on December 7, three days before they
received their Nobel medals from the King of Sweden.
As they had done in Sweden, both Schekman and
Rothman skillfully dissected the roots and branches of vesicle
transport. Schekman started the modern story of vesicle
transport with George Palade, himself a Nobel laureate in
1974 (and a founder and former president of the ASCB), who
first visualized the process by which proteins were synthesized
in the rough endoplasmic reticulum and sorted by the Golgi
for export from the cell. But to resolve the question of how
cell cargoes were assembled, delivered with such precision,
and unpacked for secretion required a radically new approach.
Schekman gambled that yeast genetics would be able to shed
light on these processes. Over the years, that approach paid off
as the Schekman lab generated a vast library of yeast mutants
with defective transport machinery and identified three classes
of genes that give vesicle transport its wonderful specificity.
Rothman also paid tribute to his scientific forbearers,
especially Palade, but also to the largely German biochemists
called “enzymologists” at the turn of the last century who
showed that fundamental cellular processes could be studied
outside the cell. In his own time, Rothman said he was
heavily influenced by Leland Hartwell and Arthur Kornberg,
Americans who also won the Nobel Prize for their work in cell
biology. Rothman benefitted from their support and guidance
in the early 1980s when he set out to reconstitute vesicle
transport in a cell-free extract system to identify the key players
that could form, coat, uncoat, deliver, and open vesicles. From
there, Rothman introduced the cast of characters—NEM, NSF,
and SNAP, all of which led to SNARE, the SNAP receptor and
the “SNARE pin,” the hairpin-shaped moleculan switch that
drives vesicle and membrane together with speed and force.
The Nobels also provide winners with a bully pulpit and
both laureates were making use of it. In his New Orleans talk,
Rothman was more pointed than in Stockhom in criticizing
what he called the “crushing” of basic research in the United
States. Rothman reiterated his prediction that if the budget
cuts on basic research continue for another 5–10 years, a whole
generation of American scientists will be forced overseas to do
research. Rothman specifically called out the National Institutes
of Health for its “misallocation” of research grant money, which
in Rothman’s view has favored translational research at the
expense of the kind of basic research that led Rothman to the
2013 Nobel Prize.
Earlier in the week, Schekman stirred up a ruckus on the
news and social media with an opinion column in the British
The Guardian
that criticized the influence of journal
impact factors (JIFs) in scientific publishing and denounced
what he called “luxury” journals—
Science, Nature,
for using JIFs in their self-promotions. Schekman said these
journals were abusing JIFs, a statistical measure of how often
a journal is cited in other papers. He called the JIF “a deeply
flawed measure” that is damaging scientific integrity.
Scientists are famously wary of allowing emotion to
overwhelm their analytic skills, but the vast crowd that filled
the Great Hall in the convention center was plainly thrilled at
the thought of two of their own being celebrated around the
world. Scientific heroes are usually safely buried in textbooks,
but there at the 2013 ASCB Annual Meeting were two very-
alive examples of the intellectual power that drives discovery
and, through basic discovery, drives the world.
—John Fleischman
Nobel Winners Speak of Science, Funding,
and Impact Factors
sequence species in far away places and email
the digitized results for transformation by a kind
of DNA printer. Venter’s lab has been testing
a DBC prototype system in a suitably remote
location, the Mojave Desert, where researchers
have been sampling lichen growing under quartz
rocks and sending the digitized sequences back
to San Diego for re-creation. Venter’s ultimate
test would put a DBC robot on Mars with a
deep soil probe to recover Martian life forms
from the permafrost or deep water deposits,
sequence them, and transmit the digitized
genome within minutes to Earth, where high-
level biosafety labs could print out the alien life
Sequencing on Mars or using the epidermal
surface of a mouse embryo as a genetic Petri
dish—none of this was on the agenda in 2001
when Venter and Fuchs last spoke to ASCB. In
her talk, Fuchs pointed out that it was nearly a
century from Ernest Haeckel’s introduction of the
term “stem cell” to Howard Green’s first successful
culture of adult stem cells, but it took only seven
years from that to Gail Martin’s culturing of
embryonic stem cells in mice. The “explosion” of
stem cell culturing methodologies in the 1990s
accelerated the pace, and the first reprogramming
of human skin cells to induced pluripotent stem
cells by Shinya Yamanaka in 2007 has picked
up the pace yet again. But Fuchs reassured her
audience of young scientists, “There is still a lot
of exciting science left to do.”
Young or established, scientists shouldn’t be
too cautious, Fuchs advised. “Often you can
think of 20 different reasons why an experiment
won’t work but sometimes, it’s a good idea to
have a beer with your buddies and ask, ‘Why not?
Maybe it will work.’”
—John Fleischman
Prior Scientific, Inc. 80 Reservoir Park Drive Rockland, MA. 02370 Tel: 800-877-2234 Email:
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“There is still a
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James Rothman
Randy Schekman
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