Three scientists whose work has shed light on the internal “cargo delivery” system of the cell – which ensures that vital chemicals are sent to the correct cellular address at the right time – have each won a share of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Two Americans and a German were jointly awarded the 8m Swedish Kroner (£776,000) prize for their separate work on how miniature, bubble-like packets or “vesicles” are able to pass through the maze of compartments in a cell and identify the correct location for delivering their cargo of chemicals.
Randy Schekman, of the University of California at Berkeley carried out pioneering work in the 1970s on yeast cells which revealed the genes that played a crucial role in this transport system, with mutant cells leading to visible vesicle congestion within the cell.
James Rothman, now at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, worked on mammalian cells in the 1980s and 1990s and showed how proteins enabled vesicles to dock and fuse with their target sites on the complex network of internal membranes separating the compartments within a cell.
Meanwhile, German-born Thomas Sudhof [umlaut over u], now based at Stanford University in California, built on the work of Schekman and Rothman and discovered the precisely-controlled mechanism that allows vesicles to release their load of chemicals at the right location and, crucially, at the right point in time between cells.
Professor Sudhof, who worked on nerve cells, found that the calcium-controlled mechanism at the heart of vesicle function enabled the delivery of chemical messengers or neurotransmitters across the tiny gap or synapse that links two or more communicating neurons.
“Together, Rothman, Schekman and Sudohof have transformed the way we view transport of molecular cargo to specific destinations inside and outside the cell,” said the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
“Their discoveries explain a long-standing enigma of cell biology and also shed new light on how disturbances in this machinery can have deleterious effects and contribute to conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes and immunological disorders,” it said.
Goran Hansson, secretary of the Nobel committee, compared that the problem of delivering chemical cargo within and between cells to the complex transport network of a modern city.
“Imagine hundreds of thousands of people who are traveling around hundreds of miles of streets; how are they going to find the right way? Where will the bus stop and open its doors so that people can get out? There are similar problems in the cell,” Mr Hansson said.
Professor Schekman said he was suffering from jet lag after returning from a trip to Europe the day before when he was awakened at 1am by a phone call to his home in California by the chairman of the Nobel Prize committee.
“My first reaction was Oh, my God! That was also my second reaction….I wasn't thinking too straight. I didn't have anything elegant to say. All I could say was 'Oh my God,' and that was that,” he told the Associated Press.
“I called my lab manager and I told him to go buy a couple bottles of Champagne and expect to have a celebration with my lab," he added.
Sudhof, who was born in Germany but moved to the U.S. in 1983 and also has American citizenship, said he received the call from the committee while driving toward the city of Baeza, in southern Spain, where he was due to give a talk.
“I got the call while I was driving and like a good citizen I pulled over and picked up the phone. To be honest, I thought at first it was a joke. I have a lot of friends who might play these kinds of tricks,” Professor Sudhof said.
“At least in the United States, which is now my home, there is a lot of soul-searching about the sense of science. And I hope and believe that I can do a little bit to help clarify the positions,” he said.
Professor Rothman said: “This is not an overnight thing. Most of it has been accomplished and developed over many years, if not decades.”