Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Nobel Prize Money: An Example of Generosity


Gunter Globel is a cell biologist who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1999. He is the director of the Laboratory of Cell Biology at Rockefeller University.

The New York Times carried an interview with Globel on Dec 7, 2004. He explained that one of his concerns is the responsibility of scientists to try to explain their work in terms which the layman can understand. "I'm always telling my students that if they can't explain what they are doing [in science] to their grandmothers then they probably don't understand it themselves."

Upon receiving the Nobel prize in 1999, Blobel donated the prize money (one million dollars) to the effort to rebuild the synagogue which the Nazis destroyed in Dresden in 1938 (Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass) , and which cost 10 million dollars to rebuild, as well as the effort to rebuild the Lutheran Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. The Frauenkirche collapsed after bombardment of Dresden by English and American aircraft in the Spring of 1945, near the end of World War II.

Before receiving the Nobel prize, Blobel had started the Friends of Dresden as an effort to raise money to restore some of the architectural glory of pre-war Dresden. As a child of 8 yr., Blobel had passed through Dresden as his family fled Silesia to escape from the invading Russian army. A few days later the city was firebombed by the Allies, and Blobel later saw the horrific destruction.

Blobel has spent many years looking for scientific evidence for his ideas about how proteins created in a cell are able to be transported to the correct location in the cell for executing their particular jobs.

Much of this time his work and ideas were heavily criticized by his peers. When asked in the New York Times interview about his ability to ignore this initial criticism, Blobel replied:

"I've never cared about being judged. There is an internal revolt in me against conforming. After the war [WW II], my family lived in East Germany and that taught me that truth is the most holy and important thing in life. I thought my ideas were reasonable. So why not propose them?"


Gunter Blobel Accepts Nobel Prize

From the Howard Hughes Medical Institute description of Blobel's research:

"The billion or so protein molecules of an average mammalian cell are constantly being renewed—that is, degraded and resynthesized about once every month. Each cell contains about a dozen compartments enclosed by a membrane. Each of the membranes and the compartments they enclose are composed of distinct proteins, and both the compartments and their surrounding membranes carry out distinct functions.

Membranes are impermeable to proteins. Essentially, proteins are synthesized in only one of the cellular compartments, the cytoplasm (although a few are synthesized in the mitoplasm of mitochondria and the chloroplasm of chloroplasts). How are newly synthesized proteins directed to their proper membranes and compartments? And how do these relatively large molecules traverse the compartmental membranes without destroying the essential gradients of small molecules and ions that exist across each of these membranes? ... "


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