The winner is: 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry

Continuing from last week, the second science-based Nobel Prize is in chemistry, and unlike physics, the 2012 prize in chemistry was solely an American victory. Right now, America is three for four in Nobel Prize winners. Take that, global rankings!

Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka received their Nobel Prize last fall for the research they’ve been conducting together for decades. Together they identified an entire family of cell receptors call G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) which allow the cell to sense its environment.

A cycle about the beta-adrenergic receptor. Image from Nature.
A cycle about the beta-adrenergic receptor. Image from Nature.

Cells are bound by a cell membrane, which is a fatty layer that acts like a cell’s skin. Until Lefkowitz and Kobilka’s work, scientists didn’t know how cells knew how to react to their environment or what allowed them to react to chemicals. Lefkowitz and Kobilka discovered a family of receptors in the cell membrane that recognized chemicals based on their structure. By forming bonds to chemicals through the receptors, the cell could then detect what was in its environment and respond appropriately.

Lefkowitz identified his first GPCR using radiation to track cell receptors. His first breakthrough came when he identified the β-adrenergic receptor on the surface of a cell’s membrane. The β-adrenergic receptor detects epinephrine – adrenaline – in the bloodstream. Adrenaline triggers the “fight or flight” response in organisms by forcing muscle cells to exert more energy and the heart to beat faster. The cells know to do this when they detect adrenaline through their β-adrenergic receptors.

Kobilka joined Lefkowitz’s research team in 1984. Young and cocky, he decided to locate where the gene for the β-adrenergic receptor was located on the human genome. He did, using bacteria to assemble the gene as a whole. This way, the researchers eventually realized that the receptor resembled one they found in the human eye, which was responsible for responding to light. As the years passed, an entire family of related receptors was recognized, the GPCRs. Together, these receptors allow cells to respond to light, flavor, smell and hundreds of chemicals.

Pharmaceutical companies quickly realized the importance of this discovery. Right now, about 40 percent of all drugs target GCPRs. So this spring when you pop a decongestant, stop and thank a Nobel Prize winner.