Nobel Prize





Nobel prize for medicine shared by three scientists for their research into regulation of vesicle traffic in cells


The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded jointly to James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Südhof for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.

Rothman is currently Professor and Chairman in the Department of Cell Biology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. Schekman is Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell biology at University of California at Berkeley. Südhof is Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University, California, USA.

Schekman discovered a set of genes that were required for vesicle traffic. Rothman unravelled protein machinery that allows vesicles to fuse with their targets to permit transfer of cargo. Südhof revealed how signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision.

Through their discoveries, Rothman, Schekman and Südhof have revealed the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo. Disturbances in this system have deleterious effects and contribute to conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes, and immunological disorders.

How cargo is transported in the cell


In a large and busy port, systems are required to ensure that the correct cargo is shipped to the correct destination at the right time. The cell, with its different compartments called organelles, faces a similar problem: cells produce molecules such as hormones, neurotransmitters, cytokines and enzymes that have to be delivered to other places inside the cell, or exported out of the cell, at exactly the right moment. Timing and location are everything. Miniature bubble-like vesicles, surrounded by membranes, shuttle the cargo between organelles or fuse with the outer membrane of the cell and release their cargo to the outside. This is of major importance, as it triggers nerve activation in the case of transmitter substances, or controls metabolism in the case of hormones. How do these vesicles know where and when to deliver their cargo?

Traffic congestion reveals genetic controllers

Schekman was fascinated by how the cell organizes its transport system and in the 1970s decided to study its genetic basis by using yeast as a model system. In a genetic screen, he identified yeast cells with defective transport machinery, giving rise to a situation resembling a poorly planned public transport system. Vesicles piled up in certain parts of the cell. He found that the cause of this congestion was genetic and went on to identify the mutated genes. Schekman identified three classes of genes that control different facets of the cell´s transport system, thereby providing new insights into the tightly regulated machinery that mediates vesicle transport in the cell.

Docking with precision

Rothman was also intrigued by the nature of the cell´s transport system. When studying vesicle transport in mammalian cells in the 1980s and 1990s, Rothman discovered that a protein complex enables vesicles to dock and fuse with their target membranes. In the fusion process, proteins on the vesicles and target membranes bind to each other like the two sides of a zipper. The fact that there are many such proteins and that they bind only in specific combinations ensures that cargo is delivered to a precise location. The same principle operates inside the cell and when a vesicle binds to the cell´s outer membrane to release its contents.

It turned out that some of the genes Schekman had discovered in yeast coded for proteins corresponding to those Rothman identified in mammals, revealing an ancient evolutionary origin of the transport system. Collectively, they mapped critical components of the cell´s transport machinery.

Timing is everything

Südhof was interested in how nerve cells communicate with one another in the brain. The signalling molecules, neurotransmitters, are released from vesicles that fuse with the outer membrane of nerve cells by using the machinery discovered by Rothman and Schekman. But these vesicles are only allowed to release their contents when the nerve cell signals to its neighbours. How is this release controlled in such a precise manner? Calcium ions were known to be involved in this process and in the 1990s, Südhof searched for calcium sensitive proteins in nerve cells. He identified molecular machinery that responds to an influx of calcium ions and directs neighbour proteins rapidly to bind vesicles to the outer membrane of the nerve cell. The zipper opens up and signal substances are released. Südhof´s discovery explained how temporal precision is achieved and how vesicles´ contents can be released on command.

Vesicle transport gives insight into disease processes

The three Nobel Laureates have discovered a fundamental process in cell physiology. These discoveries have had a major impact on our understanding of how cargo is delivered with timing and precision within and outside the cell. Vesicle transport and fusion operate, with the same general principles, in organisms as different as yeast and man. The system is critical for a variety of physiological processes in which vesicle fusion must be controlled, ranging from signalling in the brain to release of hormones and immune cytokines. Defective vesicle transport occurs in a variety of diseases including a number of neurological and immunological disorders, as well as in diabetes. Without this wonderfully precise organization, the cell would lapse into chaos.

 Date of upload: 20th Nov 2013

 

                                  
                                               Copyright © 2013 MiddleEastHealthMag.com. All Rights Reserved.