ASCB Members Win Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Two longtime ASCB members, Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley, and James Rothman of Yale University, have won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of how molecules move through the cell in vesicles and fuse to target membranes in a process known as “trafficking.” Schekman, who was ASCB President in 1999, and Rothman, who has been an ASCB member since 1982, will share their joint prize of roughly $1.2 million with Thomas Südhof of Stanford University for their work in uncovering the details of how vesicles in the cell move along cytoskeletal roadways, delivering cargoes to different parts of the cell.

Schekman, who first published his ground breaking work in 1979, used yeast, a single cell microorganism that’s easy to genetically manipulate, to discover how vesicles form, how proteins are selected to be packaged into vesicles, and how these vesicles move to their proper destination. Over three decades of research, Schekman has discovered over 50 genes involved in these processes. Schekman, who earned his doctorate at Stanford and is currently a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, is now using that information to characterize human diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. (Learn more about Schekman’s research in his iBioseminars.)

Rothman earned his doctorate at Harvard University and is now a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Rothman’s initial breakthrough focused on protein traffic in the Golgi, an organelle responsible for modifying cargo, like adding sugars to proteins. This led him to discover SNARE proteins. Rothman proposed that SNAREs were critical for vesicle docking and fusion. In testing this hypothesis, he found that SNAREs stick out from opposing membranes like antennae that when in close contact wrap around each other like twist ties to drive fusion. SNAREs are critical for the body to function in processes like sending messages through nerves, immune responses to infection, or insulin secretion. Now that Rothman has established the mechanism of these fusion events, he is investigating how these events are regulated. This research will help in understanding fusion defects in diseases like diabetes.

About the Author:

Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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