As you sit in front of your computer reading this, a myriad of thoughts are probably running through your mind. "Where is this story going?" "What am I going to have for lunch today?" "This blog is awesome!" But what you probably aren't thinking about is how you are actually able to read this. How often have you spared a thought about how the light from the screen is passing through the cornea and lens of your eye to trigger the light-sensitive photo-receptors in your retina and send the visual information to your brain?
While you consider that, also consider sending a message of congratulations to Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka for winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry today. Their work over the past few decades has revealed the inner workings of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCR), a family of cell receptors which includes the photo-receptors in your eyes, and receptors for adrenaline, taste and smell.
GPCRs are a crucial signal pathway for cells, allowing them to detect changes in their environment and react accordingly. For example, when your body releases adrenaline, the adrenaline molecule attaches to a GPCR on the outside of the cell wall. The receptor changes shape, allowing a G-protein inside the cell to bind to the receptor and activate. The activated protein breaks apart, which sets off a chain of reactions inside of the cell to change its metabolism.
The story of the discovery of GPCRs begins in the late 1960s, when Robert Lefkowitz was tasked with finding the mechanism that cells used to detect changes in their environment. By adding a radioactive isotope to adrenaline and noradrenaline, he was able to identify adrenergic receptors and observe how they worked.
Later, Lefkowitz recruited Brian Kobilka to identify the genes that code the adrenergic receptors. Kobilka’s findings showed that the adrenergic receptors were structurally similar to other receptors in the body that had completely different functions. They suddenly realized that those receptors comprised an entire family of receptors that function in the same way, but to different stimuli: the G-protein-coupled receptors.
The work done by Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka has answered a long standing question about how cells receive and process chemical signals. This knowledge is already being put to use to create drugs and therapies that manipulate cells more precisely, encouraging malfunctioning cells to work properly. Whether you spare a thought for them or not, the GPCRs in your body are always at work for you, regulating your body and letting you experience life.
The original press release announcing the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry as well as additional information about their work can be found here.