This year’s Nobel for Chemistry is awarded to Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka for their discovery of how the G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCR) work in our cells. This might sound a little finicky, but consider that the GPCR family accounts for half of pathways targeted by medical applications that do a whole host of things, from reducing pain to providing psychiatric relief to patients.
The impression I get from the excellent popular press release from nobelprizes.org is that the Nobel was awarded to the men who found ingenious ways of not only tracking the receptors’ work, but also in capturing the first images of how the protein actually functions within the cell.
GPCRs are so crucial because they provide one of the major ways that cells within our body interact with the external environment. Many intra-cellular activities occur in response to an external stimulus. For instance, you are startled by a sudden bang and your immediate instinct is to run away — that response is a result of adrenaline flooding your system, speeding up your heart but relaxing the pupils of your eyes. When adrenaline floods the system, it enters cells through the fatty acid layer of the cell and activates proteins that then go on to produce the correct physiological responses.
Normally I’d go ahead and explain the protein actions here, but in this case, I can’t do better than to refer to the press release, which is extremely clear and written with the lay person in mind.