As much as I love the IgNobel Awards, the real thing remains the single most coveted distinction out there. Many of this year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet—physics is tomorrow, chemistry is Wednesday, literature is Thursday, the Peace Prize on Friday, and economic sciences will be announced next Monday—the recipients of the prize for physiology or medicine were announced today. The winners just so happen to be a trio of researchers from the good ol’ US of A who did groundbreaking work on transportation systems within cells.
James E. Rothman of Yale University, Randy W. Schekman of the University of California at Berkeley, and Thomas C. Südhof of Stanford University will split the $1.25 million prize—maybe they’ll toast themselves and each other with a glass of moon dust beer. Their award-winning research involves vesicles, which are bubbles of fatty molecules, in cells. These vesicles carry proteins and hormones within the cell. The system they use makes it possible for nerve cells to communicate with each other via the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. Vesicles also promote the body’s release of insulin to regulate blood sugar, but their ability to transport hormones and proteins can be crippled by certain toxins like tetanus.
Scientists used to think that the stuff inside cells, like the nucleus and mitochondria, floated around like lazy kids in a swimming pool. But it turns out they don’t, and cells are more like a pool separated into lanes than one open for a public free for all. The compartmentalization within makes sense, and just as we wear paths along our most traveled routes, molecules have pathways too. When proteins or hormones move inside of a cell, they move inside vesicular bubbles that prevent them from going to the wrong place or being released prematurely.
Vesicles were discovered a long time ago, but no one really knew how they transported the inter-cellular material. Back in the 70s, Schekman did some experiments in which he mutated cells and effectively broken down their transport patterns, which allowed him to identify the genes that promote vesicular formation and movement. In the 80s, Rothman started trying to figure out how they release proteins and hormones. He made an important discovery when he realized that cells don’t need to be intact in order for vesicles to work, and working with cell fragments made it easier for him to watch them do their thing. Eventually, he was able to “unzip” vesicles to get access to their cargo. Sudhof’s contribution was to realize that the vesicles don’t drop their cargo immediately upon reaching their destination. There are actually sensors that both contain and are particularly sensitive to calcium that signal the vesicle to release the goods.
These discoveries are major in terms of cell physiology, and apply in organisms as small as yeast and as large as humans. When the vesicular transportation is disrupted or made defective, diabetes and other neurological and immunological diseases can result. Understanding their function within each cell could help doctors treat related diseases and could go a long way toward their prevention, which may be just a little more important than learning about dung beetles’ stargazing. But just a little.