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Scientists honored for research unveiling molecular machines

Photo by Harold Shapiro
Jorge Galán (left), who has studied the molecular basis of infection by Salmonella and other foodborne pathogens, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Arthur Horwich shares the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine for his contributions to understanding protein folding.

The month of May brought the good news that two School of Medicine scientists, each of whom have done pathbreaking work on molecular machines involved in human disease, had received high honors for their research.

On May 1 Jorge E. Galán, Ph.D., D.V.M., chair and Lucille P. Markey Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and professor of cell biology, was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), one of the most prestigious honors in science. On the 29th, Arthur L. Horwich, M.D., was named a winner of the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine, along with his longtime scientific collaborator Franz-Ulrich Hartl, M.D., Dr.Med., of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany.

Galán is renowned for his research on the cell biology, biochemistry, immunobiology, and structural biology of the bacterial pathogens Salmonella and Campylobacter, which together cause most of the world’s food-borne illness.

Galán’s group has thoroughly characterized the Salmonella “needle complex,” a syringe-like organelle through which the bacterium injects bacterial proteins into host cells during infection, modulating the function of those cells for its own advantage. In 2004, Galán and colleagues used cryoelectron microscopy to visualize the three-dimensional structure of the needle complex. For his wide-ranging research, in 2011 he was awarded the Koch Prize, the leading international scientific award in microbiology.

The NAS, an organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare, was established in 1863. The Academy acts as an official adviser to the federal government in any matter of science or technology.

Also elected to the NAS in May was John R. Carlson, Ph.D., of the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, bringing the total number of NAS members at Yale to 63.

Horwich, an NAS member since 2003, has devoted his career to understanding protein folding—how chains of amino acids are formed into three-dimensional, functional structures. Misfolded proteins have been implicated in many diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

In 1989, Horwich’s lab, in collaboration with Hartl and his postdoctoral mentor Walter Neupert M.D., Ph.D., discovered a specialized protein in yeast called Hsp60 that acts as a protein-folding machine. Horwich and colleagues went on to elucidate how such machines work by studying a related bacterial protein called GroEL. By 1993, in a collaboration with the late Yale X-ray crystallographer Paul B. Sigler, Ph.D., the atomic structure of GroEL—a “beautiful work of nature,” in Horwich’s words—had been deciphered.

The Shaw Prizes carry a monetary award of $1 million (U.S.) and are given by the Hong Kong-based Shaw Prize Foundation for achievement in the life sciences, astronomy, and mathematics. Established in 2002 by filmmaker and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, the awards are “dedicated to furthering societal progress, enhancing quality of life, and enriching humanity’s spiritual civilization.” Horwich and Hartl will receive the award in Hong Kong in September.