Günter Blobel was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering mechanisms that regulate proteins inside cells to control their final destination.
Blobel studied medicine in Germany and graduated as part of a prestigious class with multiple Nobel Prize winners. He went on to study molecular biology at Rockefeller University in New York City, where he ultimately became a professor and discovered his revolutionary process to send proteins through membranes while being intact.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for “discoveries concerning regulation of the cell cycle”. This is an enormous discovery that has not only changed medicine but may also change how we think about how our bodies work internally.
About Günter Blobel
Blobel attended junior high school in Lüneburg, Germany, from 1943-1948, and studied biology at the University of Hamburg from 1948-1951. In Hamburg he became a member of the elite corps of students that was directed by Nobel Prize winners Hermann Muller and James Franck. Blobel graduated with distinction in 1951, and went on to do medical studies at the University of Göttingen under the direction of Otto Warburg, who received his Nobel Prize in 1931. Günter Blobel was part of a class that also included three other Nobel Prize winners: Werner Arber, Hans Adolf Krebs and Christian de Duve.
Life of Blobel
Günter Blobel was born on March 31, 1935 in a small town on the east bank of the Elbe River, near Lüneburg, Germany. He was born in a house that actually belonged to his maternal grandparents and is still there today [in 1999]. His parents were Rudolf Blobel (1907-1948) and Gertrud Blobel (born 1913). His father, who had been gassed three years before he was born, died when Günter was just 6.
In 1951, aged 23, Blobel joined the university faculty of Hamburg as a research assistant in the lab of Nobel laureate Otto Warburg. Warburg had been studying for just two weeks when he died. From 1961 to 1964 Blobel was a staff scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, where he became professor and director of the Biophysical Institute. Blobel moved from Berkeley to Columbia University in 1969 to become professor and chair of biophysics, where he stayed until 1986, when he returned to Columbia as professor emeritus. He is currently director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at New York University.
His Personal Life
He married Martha W. Pepper in 1955, with whom he has two children: Friederike Blobel and Hans-Georg Blobel. He has one sister, Elisabeth (born 1928), and a brother, Manfred (born 1930).
His field of research is protein transport and protein folding. He was part of the molecular biology team on Columbia University’s early attempts to develop a polio vaccine, and he also acted as a spokesman for the field in a 1965 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace.
Blobel met his future wife when he was a graduate student in Berlin. Dr Pepper was then working for Nobel Laureate Paul Hermann Muller at Rockefeller University in New York City. After marrying she joined Muller’s lab. He became her husband’s research assistant at Rockefeller, moving into Muller’s house when she joined him, and finally becoming his second wife in 1967 when he divorced Pepper after 11 years of marriage.
Blobel became interested in the regulation of protein synthesis when he was a medical resident at Bonn, where he studied with Manfred Eigen. He found that the proteins were being moved inside cells in an uncontrolled and unregulated manner. The problem could be solved by moving the protein from one side of a membrane to the other, and this would give them a chance to “turn around” inside their own cell. The question was how do you get it across the membrane? He developed a method for sending molecules across membranes that remains unchallenged today. In 1959 he was awarded an Habilitation (doctorate) degree by Hamburg University, after which he became lecturer at Hamburg in 1962.
Gene gating hypothesis
In 1962 he published his controversial work on gene gating, which, together with the famous experiment by Robert Holley and Edmond Fischer, showed that protein synthesis was required for gene activation. Prior to this time, it was widely believed that genes were “activated” by the addition of factors from outside the cell. In 1966 Blobel published a paper showing that proteins could be transported from one side of a membrane to the other inside intact cells. He went on to demonstrate that cells communicate with each other using transport molecules called receptors which recognize and respond to particular classes of molecules. This work eventually led to his discovery for how proteins are moved across membranes in intact organisms.
Awards and Honors
Blobel was named to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1967 and the European Molecular Biology Organization in 1968. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1970 and two Fellowships from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (1977 & 1980). He and his wife Martha were awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Hamburg, Universität Freiburg, Universität Bremen, and Columbia University.
Blobel has won many medals for his scientific contributions, including two awards from the Max Delbrück Prize (1970 & 1986), the Eppendorf Award 1995 and he received an Honorary Doctorate of Science at Keele University in 1997. He got the Nobel prize in 1999.
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