Magazine article Science News

Breakdown: How Three Chemists Took the Prize: Nobel Laureates Discovered How Cells Label Proteins for Destruction

Magazine article Science News

Breakdown: How Three Chemists Took the Prize: Nobel Laureates Discovered How Cells Label Proteins for Destruction

Article excerpt

This years Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to three scientists--two Israeli and one U.S.--for their discovery of the molecular machinery that cells use to dispose of defective or unnecessary proteins. The 25-year-old discovery laid the foundation for what has since become a vast area of medical research. Faulty protein-breakdown equipment, for instance, underlies cystic fibrosis, several neurodegenerative diseases, and certain types of cancer.

Aaron Ciechanever, 57, and Avram Hershko, 67, of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and Irwin Rose, 78, of the University of California, Irvine will share the roughly $1.4 million prize.

"It's the story of three generations of scientists," says Ciechanover.

In the late 1970s, Ciechanover was a postdoctoral student in Hershko's lab. The two scientists were investigating why some types of protein degradation require energy, while other types, such as the breakdown of food proteins by the stomach's digestive enzymes, do not.

To solve the mystery, the Technion team began collaborating with Rose, a more senior scientist who was then working on the same problem at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Through this collaboration, the researchers discovered that protein degradation in cells relies on a molecular tag called ubiquitin. A cell marks proteins with this "kiss of death" molecule--itself a small protein--and then shuttles the doomed proteins to its waste-disposal units, called proteasomes. These barrel-shaped structures chop the proteins into tiny pieces for reuse. …

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