Interdisciplinary research – Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to two Biologists

Modern scientific research does not confine itself to any restricted boundary.  Nowadays, it is all about interdisciplinary research. In 2012, Nobel Prize for Chemistry ( awarded to two eminent biologists, Prof. Robert J Lefkowitz and Prof. Brian Kobika, for their crucial contribution in unveiling the signalling mechanism of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). It’s a lifetime work of both the scientists. Dr. Lefkowitz, an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at Duke University, is also James B Duke Professor of Medicine and of Biochemistry at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA. Dr. Kobika, earlier a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Lefkowitz’s laboratory, is currently Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University, School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, USA.

Transmembrane signalling of one GPCR “caught in action” by X-ray crystallography

GTP (guanosine triphosphate) binding proteins (G-protein) act as molecular switches in transmitting signals from different stimuli outside the cell to inside the cell. However, for doing this G-protein needs to be activated, and that is where GPCRs play the most important role. They sit in the cell membranes throughout the body. GPCRs, also known as seven transmembrane (pass through the cell membrane seven times) domain proteins, detect the external signals like odor, light, flavor as well as the signals within the body such as hormones, neurotransmitter.1 Once the GPCRs detect a signal, the signal is transduced in certain pathway and finally activate the G-protein. In response, the activated G-protein triggers different cellular processes. Binding of a signalling molecule or ligand to the GPCR causes conformational changes in the GPCR structure. As a result of extensive research of 20 long years, Dr. Lefkowitz and Dr. Kobika not only identified 800 members of GPCRs family in human but also caught in action how these receptor proteins actually carry out the signal transduction with the help of high resolution X-ray crystallography. The crystal structure of ß2-adrenergic receptor (ß2AR), a member of the human GPCRs family was reported by Dr. Kobika and his colleagues in 2007.2 The hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are known to activate ß2AR, and the activated ß2AR triggers different biochemical processes which help in speeding up the heart and opening airways as body’s fight response. The ß2AR is a key ingredient in anti-asthma drugs. One of the major breakthroughs came in 2011 when Dr. Kobika and his co-workers unveiled for the first time the exact moment of the transmembrane signalling by a GPCR. They reported the crystal structure of “the active state ternary complex composed of agonist-occupied monomeric ß2AR and nucleotide-free Gs heterotrimer”.3 A major conformational change in ß2AR during signal transduction was discovered.

Now what is so special about GPCRs? Well, these proteins belong to one of the largest families of  all human proteins. GPCRs are involved in most of the physiological activities, and hence are  the targets of a number of drugs. Determination of the molecular structures of this class of receptors not only helps the researchers to understand the actual mechanism of different cellular processes but also help them to design life saving and more effective drugs. So, in a nut shell, this scientific breakthrough was possible due to the involvement of experts of different areas of science such as, chemistry, biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology, structural biology, cardiology, crystallography.




  1. Lefkowitz, R. J. Seven transmembrane receptors: something old, something new. Acta Physiol. (Oxf.) 190, 9–19 (2007).
  2. Rasmussen, S. G. et al. Crystal structure of the human b2 adrenergic G-protein coupled receptor. Nature 450, 383–387 (2007).
  3. Rasmussen, S. G. et al.  Crystal structure of the b2 adrenergic receptor–Gs protein complex. Nature 477,  549-557 (2011)


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