Presentation Speech by Professor Hans Jörnvall of the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded for discoveries concerning reversible protein phosphorylation. What does that mean and how does phosphorylation work?
Let us start with proteins. They can be compared with workers in our tissues. We are composed of cells, each cell constituting a small community. Constant activity is a characteristic feature both of cells and ordinary communities. There are systems for transportation, energy generation, production, and waste handling. In society all this is handled by humans, in a cell proteins take our place. How do they accomplish their functions? Well, exactly like human workers, they operate by way of interaction with other components. Much in the same manner as a driver or pilot recognizes the controls, proteins recognize “their” partners, binding them to influence the reaction paths.
And now phosphorylation: one or several small phosphate groups are coupled to a protein, changing its properties. If the parallel with our human workers is pursued further, one could perhaps compare phosphorylation with ballet shoes. Despite their small size they have dramatic effects on their wearer! The shape of the foot is altered and after that, work is like a dance. Edmond Fischer and Edwin Krebs, this year’s Laureates, described this principle in the fifties. They showed how muscles liberate an energy-rich form of sugar from its storage form by phosphorylation of a protein. After that, science gradually gained insight into the fact that this constitutes a general principle manifested in all cellular activities. Today, a considerable part of world bioscience involves protein phosphorylation.
Why this regulation via coupling of small groups? One advantage is that the process is reversible, i.e. the shoes can be taken off and put on, a process which can be repeated again and again. Thus, proteins can be regulated in both directions. Another is that the reactions can be carried out in successive steps, creating a cascade that amplifies the end effect. Much like the hydraulic amplification in a brake: a gentle touch of the pedal can stop even a heavy car. In the world of proteins, Krebs and his collaborators paved the way for this knowledge by studying also the preceding protein in the chain of phosphorylations, while Fischer concentrated his efforts along other lines and, as recently as some years ago, reported the purification of a special type of phosphate-removing protein.
Yet another advantage is that the regulation can be affected by different signals. The system that Fischer and Krebs first studied can be activated either by means of a stress hormone released when we become frightened and our muscles prepare us for escape, or by an act of will when we wish to run for other reasons. Phosphate groups are in these two cases attached in response to separate signals, much as they are in all other cellular response systems. What relevance does this have to medicine? The easiest answer is that we all know of the consequences in society from imbalances in economic chain reactions! We are now in a position to start perceiving how illnesses, including common diseases like hypertension and tumors, are accompanied by imbalances in phosphorylations. Relationships initially recognized in connection with glycogen storage in muscles and liver, have thus been proven to pertain to cellular regulatory processes in general. An excellent demonstration of the power of basic research and of the versatility of simple models. The protein system in glycogen storage has given rise, over the years, to several Nobel Prizes, in 1947 to Gerty and Carl Cori for the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen, in 1971 to Earl Sutherland for mechanisms of action of hormones, and now to Fischer and Krebs for discoveries concerning reversible protein phosphorylation as a biological regulatory mechanism.
Edmond Fischer and Edwin Krebs,
I have tried to describe your field of research and elegant discoveries in your studies of reversible protein phosphorylation, going back to the initial detection of the activation mechanism of phosphorylase, and continuing with protein phosphatases. Over the years, your early observations on a particular system have contributed to the opening up of novel insight into basic protein regulations at all levels and in all cells. On behalf of the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute, I convey to you our warmest congratulations, and ask you now to step forward to receive your Nobel Prizes from the hands of His Majesty the King.