James E. Rothman, Ph. D. ’76—now Wallace professor of biomedical sciences at Yale, chair of the medical school’s department of cell biology, and founding director of Yale’s nanobiology institute—has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Randy W. Schekman, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas C. Südhof, of Stanford. The three scientists were recognized for “their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells.”
According to Rothman’s biography, he earned his Ph.D. degree in biological chemistry and was a student at Harvard Medical School from 1971 to 1973. From 1976 to 1978, he was a fellow in MIT’s department of biology. From 1978 to 1988, he was a professor in the department of biochemistry at Stanford. He was Squibb professor of molecular biology at Princeton from 1988 to 1991 and then founded and chaired the department of cellular biochemistry and biophysics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (1991-2004), where he served as vice-chairman of Sloan-Kettering. Before moving to Yale in 2008, Rothman was Wu professor of chemical biology and director of Columbia University’s Sulzberger Genome Center.
His biography cites discovery of
key molecular machinery responsible for transfer of materials among compartments within cells, providing the conceptual framework for understanding such diverse and important processes as the release of insulin into the blood, communication between nerve cells in the brain, and the entry of viruses to infect cells. Numerous kinds of tiny membrane-enveloped vesicles ferry packets of enclosed cargo. Each type of vesicle must deliver its specialized cargo to the correct destination among the maze of distinct compartments that populate the cytoplasm of a complex animal cell. The delivery process, termed membrane fusion, is fundamental for physiology and medicine, as pathology in this process can cause metabolic, neuropsychiatric and other diseases. Rothman reconstituted vesicle budding and fusion in a cell-free system (1984) and discovered the complex of SNARE proteins (1993) which mediates membrane fusion and affords it specificity. He also uncovered the GTPase-switch mechanism which controls coated vesicle budding in the cell (1991).