Martin Rodbell Biography (1925-)


Rodbell was born on December 1, 1925 in Baltimore, Maryland. He attended a special Baltimore high school that accepted boys from all over the city and prepared them to enter college as sophomores. He entered Johns Hopkins University in 1943, pursuing his interest in chemistry. Not long after entering the university, Rodbell became bored with classes and felt (being Jewish) compelledto combat Hitler's armies. He spent the balance of World War II serving in the Navy, primarily in the South Pacific.

Rodbell returned to Johns Hopkins and received a B.A. in 1949. That same yearhe met his future wife, Barbara Lederman, a ballet dancer from Holland who had lost her family in the Auschwitz concentration camp. They married a year later, and Rodbell credits his wife for immersing him the world of the arts. Rodbell and his new wife traveled to Seattle, where Rodbell began his graduatestudies in biochemistry at the University of Seattle. He studied the chemistry of lipids (the fatty substances in cells), and his thesis was on the biosynthesis of lecithin (fats found in cell membranes) in the rat liver. Unfortunately, his thesis was disproved by another scientist working on the same subject. This experience taught him not to assume that biological chemicials arepure, something that would help him later in his Nobel Prize-winning work.

Rodbell finished his Ph.D. in 1954 and then went to the University of Illinois for his post-doctoral fellowship. His research involved the biosynthesis ofchloramphenicol, an antibiotic. When his fellowship advisor, Herbert Carter,asked him where he wanted to teach, Rodbell had to answer nowhere. After having taught a lecture course to freshman, only a few of whom passed his exams,Rodbell decided that teaching was not his calling. He accepted a position atthe National Heart Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and continued his research into fats, identifying important proteins that pertained to diseases concerning lipoproteins.

In the 1960s he returned to his original interest in cell biology and was awarded a fellowship to work at the University of Brussels, where he learned newlab techniques. He returned to the United States and accepted a postion at the NIH Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases in the Nutrition and Endocrinology lab. There he developed a simple procedure that would separate andpurify fat cells. He was also able to remove the fat from a cell, conservingmost of the structure of the cell. He named these cells "ghosts."

In several groundbreaking experiments, Rodbell and his colleagues at the NIHshowed that cell communication involves three different working devices: (1)a chemical signal; (2) a "second messenger" like a hormone; and (3) a transducer, something that converts energy from one form to another. Rodbell's majorcontribution was in discovering that there was a transducer function. He andhis colleagues also speculated that guanine nucleotides, components of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA), were somehow involved in cell communication, something that would later be confirmed by Alfred Goodman,the biochemist with whom he would share the Nobel Prize. Gilman searched forthe chemicals involved with guanine nucleotides and discovered the G-proteins.

G-proteins are instrumental in the fundamental workings of a cell. They allowus to see and smell by changing light and odors to chemical messages that travel to the brain. Understanding how G-proteins malfunction could lead to a better understanding of serious diseases like cholera or cancer. Scientists have already linked improperly working G-proteins to diseases like alcoholism and diabetes. Pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs that would focus on G-proteins.

Rodbell served as director of the National Institute of Environmental HealthSciences in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from 1985 until his retirement in 1994. Ironically, only a few months before receiving the Nobel Award, Rodbell opted for early retirement, because there were no funds to support the research he wanted to do. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize, Rodbell was vocal in his criticism of the government because of its unwillingness to provide adequate support for fundamental research. He criticized them for favoring projects that yield obviously tangible and potentially profitable results, like drug treatments. Rodbell's other awards include the NIH Distinguished Service Award in1973 and the Gairdner Award in 1984.

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