Yale University professor James E. Rothman is one of three researchers to share this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The award, announced Monday, recognizes the three scientists’ work in understanding how the transport systems in cells work.
“The three Nobel Laureates have discovered a fundamental process in cell physiology,” the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet said Monday in its announcement.
It noted that the system they uncovered is critical for many physiological processes, and that problems with it are found in a variety of diseases, including diabetes.
“Without this wonderfully precise organization, the cell would lapse into chaos,” the Institutet’s announcement said.
Cells produce and export molecules that are critical for life, and the research that earned the scientists the prize helped to explain how those molecules are transported within cells and from cells to other parts of an organism.
Randy W. Schekman, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, identified genes in yeast that control the cell’s transport system.
Rothman, meanwhile, discovered how cargo molecules get delivered to the right places. According to the Nobel Assembly, Rothman found that proteins from the packages cells use to transport molecules bind with proteins on their targets “like the two sides of a zipper.” They bind only in specific combinations, helping to ensure that cargo goes to the right location.
Rothman’s work was based on the study of mammalian cells, and the genes Schekman found in yeast contained the recipes for the proteins Rothman identified in mammals.
The third scientist, Thomas Südhof, a professor at Stanford University, identified what makes the packages containing the cargo molecules release their contents at precise times.
Rothman received his undergraduate degree from Yale and a Ph.D. from Harvard. He began his research on cell transport systems at Stanford, and has also worked at Princeton University, Columbia University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute. He joined the Yale faculty in 2008 and serves as chairman of the department of cell biology.