The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three Americans on Monday for their work on the transportation of enzymes and hormones within outside cells. James Rothman, Randy Schekman, and Thomas Südhof have, according to nobelprize.org, "solved the mystery of how the cell organizes its transport system."
Südhof is a professor at Stanford University who is German-born but has American citizenship, while Rothman is a professor at Yale University. Schekman is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Although the three men worked separately and with varying approaches, it was determined that each had contributed to the discovery of the precise, complex, and to some mystical organization of the cell's transport system.
Schekman discovered a set of genes that were required for vesicle traffic. Rothman unravelled protein machinery that allows vesicles to fuse with their targets to permit transfer of cargo. Südhof revealed how signals instruct vesicles to release their cargo with precision.
For those wondering about the significance of this complicated system, the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute and the official web site for the Nobel Prize sum it up. The Nobel Assembly simply remarked, "Through their discoveries, [the professors] have revealed the exquisitely precise control system for the transport and delivery of cellular cargo." The Assembly went on to say that "without this wonderfully precise organization, the cell would lapse into chaos."
The Chicago Tribune noted that the cellular transport system "is so critical and sensitive that errors and disruption in the mechanism can lead to serious illness or death." These illnesses include conditions such as diabetes, neurological diseases, and immunological disorders. At least part of the reason for diabetes and certain brain disorders can be attributed to imperfections or deficiencies in the vesicle transport systems.
An excellent example of their research's importance was explained by the Nobel committee as greater knowledge of the mechanisms behind insulin, which has the task of controlling the body's blood sugar levels. Their work more thoroughly explained how insulin is manufactured and must be released into the blood at the right place at the right time, an understanding that could help with future treatment of diabetes.