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For Yale's Rothman, a cell Nobel

If you want to be a Nobel laureate, take a tip from James Rothman ’71: it's all about location, location, location.

Rothman, chairman of the School of Medicine's cell biology department, shares the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for solving "the mystery of how the cell organizes its transport system," the Royal Swedish National Academy announced today.

It turns out there are three keys to the mystery: genes, location, and timing. Rothman, the Wallace Professor of Biomedical Sciences, is Mr. Location.

"Each cell is a factory that produces and exports molecules"—insulin, for example, or neurotransmitters, the Nobel press release explains. "These molecules are transported around the cell in small packages called vesicles. The three Nobel Laureates have discovered the molecular principles that govern how this cargo is delivered to the right place at the right time in the cell."

Randy Schekman, of the University of California at Berkeley, discovered the genes that control the transport system. Thomas Südhof, of Stanford University, identified the mechanism by which the vesicles know exactly when to releast their contents.

And Rothman—who said at a Yale press conference this afternoon that he's been working on this puzzle for 25 years—"discovered that a protein complex enables vesicles to dock and fuse with their target membranes," the press release explains. "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."

Three years ago, Rothman shared the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience with Südhoff and a third scientist, Robert Sheller. The Kavli is often seen as a forerunner to a Nobel Prize, and Rothman hinted at that anticipation at today's press conference.

Asked what he was doing when the Nobel committee called at 4:30 this morning, he replied: “I was asleep. In past years I have not been asleep, but the calls did not arrive. So I went to sleep very nicely.”

Giving reporters a mini-lesson on neurostransmitters, Rothman noted: "Everybody has commented on how good my mood has been today. That’s because . . . my endorphins are stimulated. Certainly my dopamine has been stimulated as a reward system." But since his adrenaline had not yet kicked in, "I’m counting on some good questions from the press” to help him stay awake.

Filed under Nobel Prize, James Rothman, biology
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