One of my favorite science historians, Daniel Kevles, has a brief, insightful New Yorker piece that puts this year’s chemistry Nobel Prize in context:
Trying to see the fine structure of a cell with a light microscope is akin to attempting to discern the individual trees in a forest from a jetliner at thirty thousand feet.
Kevles explains how Betzig and Hell were obsessed with breaking the “Abbe limit,” the physical principle that the resolution of light microscopes is limited to the wavelength of light. Each of them figured out how to “argue with the laws of physics,” using some brilliant tricks with fluorescence. To someone outside of biology it may sound strange, but the development of fluorescent imaging and tagging technologies is turning out to be one of the most important developments in the history of biology, at least as revolutionary as the initial development of the microscope.
In graduate school, while you are building your super-specialized knowledge base there are often particular labs whose work you are on the look-out for while searching for new papers to read. Sometimes it’s a competitor that you’re keeping tabs on, other times it’s your science crush, and more often it’s just scientists whose work is consistently thorough and enlightening. For me, studying synaptic development, one of those labs was the Sudhof lab at Stanford. When I heard he had won the Nobel prize a few weeks ago I was pretty excited to actually know what work contributed to that prize without reading the press release. Cell press has made the journal article detailing his seminal discoveries available to everyone. The award was made to those contributing to discovery of the machinery regulating vesicle traffic, the major transport mechanism within a cell. Dr. Sudhof’s contributions were specific to vesicle trafficking within nerve cells.
Sudhof’s seminal work focused on multiple forms of a protein called synaptotagmin. This protein is attached to synaptic vesicles which are packages of neurotransmitters that are released from a cell when that cell is activated. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that then travel to the next cell and carry the signal of activation. Sudhof showed that different types of synaptotagmin are expressed all throughout the brain. He also showed that they are at areas called the synapse, the connection between two cells. One of the components of his work most critical to the future of neuroscience was his discovery that 3 of the 4 types of synaptotagmin bind to calcium. Continue reading “Hey, I know that guy!”
For my entire scientific career, I’ve introduced every talk with one of the following arguments:
1) G-protein coupled receptors are fundamentally important and interesting because they are involved in almost every aspect of our physiology, and because they are the targets of the majority of currently used drugs.
2) Gene regulation is fundamentally important and interesting because it is involved in almost every major biological process, including development, cell division, and differentiation, as well as disease.