NIH Grantee Günter Blobel Wins Nobel Prize for Protein Signaling Discovery

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Günter Blobel, M.D., Ph.D., a long-time grantee of the National Institutes of Health, is the recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. His prize-winning work on protein signaling in the cell was supported by NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences and National Cancer Institute. Between 1971 and 1989, Dr. Blobel received over $4.5 million in NIH research grant support, primarily from NIGMS.

According to NIGMS director Marvin Cassman, Ph.D., "Dr. Blobel's work was seminal in our broad understanding of one of the essential parts of living systems--how molecular 'zip codes,' now known as signal sequences, target eukaryotic proteins to their proper intracellular destinations. Pioneering work in his laboratory is responsible for much of what we know about how proteins enter membrane-bound organelles. His work has led to an explosion of knowledge on the trafficking of proteins in the cell, and even on the way some kinds of drugs may be introduced into cells."

Dr. Blobel's work has focused on the mechanisms by which proteins are moved, or translocated, across cellular membranes. In the early 1970s, he formulated the hypothesis that in order for these proteins to be translocated across the membrane of an organelle called the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), they needed a sort of "address label," which he called a signal sequence. In turn, a receiving molecule--called a signal recognition factor--directs the protein to a specific receptor in the ER, where it triggers the opening of a channel across which the protein is translocated.

A pivotal advance for testing this hypothesis was Dr. Blobel's development in 1975 of a test-tube system that mimicked protein translocation in the cell. This allowed the biochemical dissection of the process, leading to a series of key discoveries in his laboratory.

More recently, Dr. Blobel has studied the mechanisms governing the bidirectional traffic of proteins into and out of another membrane-bound cellular organelle, the nucleus. Dr. Blobel currently receives support from NIH's National Center for Research Resources for the identification of the proteins that make up the nuclear pore complex, the structure through which this bidirectional traffic takes place.

Dr. Blobel is the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor in the Laboratory of Cell Biology at The Rockefeller University. His association with NIH began in 1962, when he first received predoctoral training support from NCI for his Ph.D. studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Of the 76 American Nobel laureates in physiology or medicine since 1945, three-fourths--a total of 57--either had worked at or were supported by NIH before winning the prize. During the same period, 119 scientists worldwide have received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, more than half of whom--67--had prior support from or worked at NIH before the honor.

NIGMS funds research and research training in the basic biomedical sciences, including cell and molecular biology. This support enables scientists at universities, medical schools, and research institutions throughout the country to expand knowledge about the fundamental life processes that underlie human health and disease.