One of the most meaningful experiences we as scientists may have—beyond the work we do in our labs and the discoveries our efforts may lead to—is to share the passion and the motivation behind our investigations with other scientists. I’ve spoken a lot about the concept of open access publications and why this is important to the future of scientific discovery. For me, it better serves science and society.
During a Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative event held at MedImmune recently, I talked about this as well as how we also are served by promoting original scholarship rather than encouraging popular trends designed to attract attention. This is perhaps the greatest contribution that we can all make toward the future of medicine.
It is inspirational work. Two years ago, I was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for my investigations, along with James Rothman and Thomas Sudhof, in cell physiology and genetics; specifically, for the discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells. As with most work in science, this was no “overnight discovery,” but rather the result of being hyper-attuned to all of the data that preceded the work. In our case, this was in part informed by experiments done by George Palade in the 1960s in which his lab established the broad outlines of the secretory pathway using electron microscope and cell fractionation experiments. This was pioneering work, and was essential to catapulting my own inquiries. It meant that I, and others, now had the essential background to apply new tools to probe these processes at the molecular level.
Beginning in 1976, my lab isolated a series of conditionally lethal, temperature sensitive mutations that block secretion at one of the several sequential stages along the pathway established by Palade. At the same time, another lab headed by Dr. Rothman established a cell-free reaction that reproduced vesicular traffic within the Golgi apparatus. Several of the proteins Dr. Rothman’s lab isolated with this functional assay matched the Sec—or Type II secretory pathway—proteins we had identified genetically. Thus, the work of our two teams, and others who found the human equivalents of the genes my lab discovered in yeast, proved that the fundamental mechanism of secretion has been conserved over a billion years of evolution.
That evolutionary conservation has allowed biotech companies to harness yeast as a factory for the secretion of useful quantities of human proteins. One-third of the world supply of recombinant insulin is made by secretion in yeast, and the entire world supply of the Hepatitis B vaccine is manufactured in yeast cells. This is a fine example of basic science discovery informed by the cumulative work of others, leading to important new applications in health and technology.
That is what following the science is about. More importantly, a new generation of scientists has more data at their fingertips, which has the potential for even greater discoveries. This remains among the great motivators of science. We are perpetual seekers, insatiably curious. Those of us who are paying attention to the cues and clues of past and current colleagues are poised for continually better serving science and making noble—and maybe even Nobel—contributions.