Jetlagged after flying home from receiving the prestigious Otto Warburg Medal of the German Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Randy Schekman was asleep when the telephone rang to tell him he had won the Nobel Prize as well. ‘My first reaction was: ‘Oh, my God!’’, he smiles. ‘That was my second reaction, too.’
Not that it need be a total surprise; as is often the case, Schekman had also previously received the Albert Lasker award – a reliable barometer of Nobel potential – which he shared in 2002 with James Rothman, one of his fellow Nobel laureates, for their independent work on the internal traffic system in cells. They shared the Nobel with Thomas Südhof.
Inside every microscopic cell is a hive of activity, as ribosomes constantly produce new proteins, which are then stored in a network called the endoplasmic reticulum. Vesicles (liquid-filled sacs within the cell) then carry proteins to the Golgi apparatus (another organelle within the cell), which processes the proteins and dispatches them to perform specific tasks around the body. Schekman’s interest lay in how these proteins are transported safely and accurately to their destination.
He gained an early interest in mathematics and mechanical science from his engineer father, but his sister’s early death from leukaemia switched his focus to biology. His mother also died of cancer and Schekman has vowed to use his share of the Nobel prize money to fund the Esther and Wendy Schekman Chair in Basic Cancer Biology at UC Berkeley in their memory.
Randy Wayne Schekman was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, at the end of 1948 but grew up in California, attending Western High School in Anaheim and gaining his BA in molecular science at UCLA in 1971. Initially intending to pursue a medical career, he was instead inspired by a year working in a laboratory at the University of Edinburgh and returned to America to study biochemistry at Stanford under 1959 Nobel laureate Arthur Kornberg, gaining his PhD in 1975.
He first became interested in how proteins move within cells during a postdoctoral fellowship with John Singer but at the time it was difficult to study vesicles in mammal cells in the laboratory. So, moving to the University of California, Berkeley in 1976, Schekman decided to use yeast, a one-celled microorganism which could be easily genetically manipulated yet has a cell structure similar to those of higher organisms, including humans.
Gradually Schekman unpicked the mechanics of vesicle formation, selection of protein cargo, and movement to the correct path outside the cell, and identified 50 genes involved in the process and the order and role each played. One of the most important genes he found, Schekman says, is the SEC61 gene, which encodes a channel to allow secretory proteins to pass into the endoplasmic reticulum lumen. When this gene is mutant, proteins fail to enter the secretion assembly line, causing diseases in humans that may include Alzheimers.
He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1984 and Professor in 1994. In 1991 he was named as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator. He is also a member of the Royal Society and is on the selection committee for the Shaw Prize.
Schekman is also devoted to the promotion of science in as open a manner as possible. He is a former editor-in-chief of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and in 2011 he was appointed as editor of eLife, an open-access journal published by the HHMI, Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust. He has since criticised the ‘tyranny’ of high-profile science publications such as Nature, Cell and Science which he says artificially restrict the number and nature of articles published. The prestigious nature of the titles appeals to a certain snobbery among academic institutions, who then submit work they deem most likely to attract kudos and funding. He has taken a lead by declaring his laboratory would no longer submit material to the closed-access ‘lottery’ of the triumvirate of journals.
Randy Schekman is married to Nancy Walls, with whom he has two adult children.