UC Berkeley professor Randy Schekman wins Nobel for work on protein transport

Randy Schekman of the campus department of molecular and cell 
biology accepts his Nobel laureate parking pass while Dirks looks on.
Carli Baker/File
Randy Schekman of the campus department of molecular and cell biology accepts his Nobel laureate parking pass while Dirks looks on.

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Randy Schekman, a UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology, has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his research revealing the mechanisms that release proteins in human cells.

Schekman, who shares the prize with James E. Rothman of Yale University and Thomas C. Sudhof of Stanford University, helped discover the mechanics of protein secretion, leading to landmark research in yeast mutation and its role in insulin production. This research illuminated how cells organize their internal transport systems, a major step forward for biologists.

Hours after returning home from another award ceremony in Germany, Schekman was awoken at 1:30 a.m. by a phone call Monday, in which he was greeted by a “comforting voice with a thick Swedish accent.”

Schekman is the 22nd UC Berkeley researcher to receive the Nobel Prize and the first to receive the prize in physiology or medicine.

“I immediately called my dad, who’s 86 years old and has been waiting for this moment for years,” Schekman said. “He told me every year that time is wasting, and he’s not going to live forever.”

The award serves as the culmination of Schekman’s more than 30 years of research on the precise machinery behind protein secretion. The Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute specifically recognized Schekman for his “exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo.”

Richard Harland, co-chair of campus department of molecular and cell biology, described this as the mechanical dissection of how proteins are taken from the site where they are made through a series of membrane vesicles on their way to be dumped out of the cell.

“Randy was driven by the nuts and bolts of what makes cells work,” Harland said.

During junior high school, Schekman was “hooked on science fairs” and received cash prizes at the regional and state level before going on to win the “cash prizes to beat all cash prizes in the ultimate science fair,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks at a press conference Monday morning.

After studying DNA replication at UCLA, Schekman went on to study molecular biology at Stanford, where he said he had the “tremendous opportunity” to train under the renowned biochemist Arthur Kornberg, who won a Nobel Prize himself in 1959 for identifying a key enzyme in DNA synthesis.

After leaving Stanford, Schekman began his postdoctoral research at UC San Diego, the second of three UC campuses that would be “blessed by his presence,” Dirks said.

In 1976, Schekman, who Harland called a “proud product of the UC system,” was offered a professorship in biochemistry at UC Berkeley, where he focused on yeast genetics, taking on a “risky” project looking at the mechanics of protein transport.

“When I started in 1976, one knew really nothing about the nuts and bolts of how secretion is executed and what were the cellular machines that encapsulate other proteins and march them through the cytoplasm of the cell,” Schekman said.

At the press conference, Schekman explained that protein cells are encapsulated within little packets, called “vesicles,” and delivered to the perimeter of the cell, where they pop or fuse. Other molecules, such as insulin, follow this pathway, but prior to Schekman’s research, this path was understood only at a superficial level. By isolating mutations of yeast, he was able to “cripple the process” and gain crucial information about the nature of the gene.

Other labs soon discovered that in sequencing the human genome, the genes and proteins present had the same function as those in Schekman’s yeast-cell clones. This revelation made it obvious to the biotechnology industry that the power of fermentation in yeast can be used to make commercial quantities of insulin, Schekman said. Today, one-third of human insulin is produced by yeast, a “direct product of the government and this university’s basic confidence,” Schekman said.

Both Schekman and Dirks emphasized the importance of public universities in Schekman’s career, while Harland called Schekman “instrumental in maintaining the quality of undergraduate education at Cal.”

Although Harland said Schekman’s research seminars are “some of the most challenging and sophisticated” on campus, Schekman also voluntarily teaches a seminar for freshmen and said he has come to “treasure that experience.”

“I intend to use whatever glory that comes to me to the benefit of the university, to spread the word about how important public higher education is in this country,” Schekman said.

Virgie Hoban is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @VirgieHoban.

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