James E. Rothman, PhD, the Fergus F. Wallace Professor of Biomedical Sciences and chair of the department of cell biology, was awarded the 2010 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience for his contributions to understanding membrane trafficking, the means by which proteins and other materials are transported within and between cells. The prize committee highlighted Rothman’s work on exocytosis, a form of trafficking in which spherical sacs called vesicles fuse with cell membranes to deliver their contents outside the cell.
Exocytosis is ubiquitous in biology—it is essential to cell division and insulin secretion, for example—but it plays a particularly crucial role in the nervous system. In neurons, vesicles carrying neurotransmitters fuse with cell membranes at synapses, emptying their cargo to pass on the chemical messages that govern movement, perception, cognition, memory, and mood.
For three decades, Rothman has performed elegant, focused biochemical and cell biology experiments that have revealed the molecular machinery of membrane trafficking in fine detail. Much of this work was done using a “cell-free” approach, in which Rothman sidestepped the complexities of working with complete cells by isolating the intracellular components crucial to membrane trafficking. This strategy allowed him to propose that complexes of membrane-associated proteins known as SNAREs are required for vesicles to fuse with membranes. Rothman shared the Kavli Prize with Thomas Südhof, PhD, of the Stanford School of Medicine, and Richard H. Scheller, PhD, formerly at Stanford and now Executive Vice President of Genentech.
Rothman’s was the second consecutive Kavli Prize in Neuroscience won by a Yale School of Medicine researcher. In 2008, Pasko Rakic, MD, PhD, Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Neuroscience and the inaugural director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, shared the prize for his research on the development of the cerebral cortex.
In 2013, Rothman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.