You and I may not look twice at nematodes, but for Anthony Heymann, this year’s European Korber Prize for Science laureate, mystery worms hold answers to understanding how our cells work.
“Nobody really cares about C. elegans, but our research on it ended up affecting nearly all of the biomedical research,” Hyman told DW.
The prize of one million euros ($1 million) will be awarded to Hyman on September 2.
Hyman won the prize for his discovery that proteins can accumulate inside the cell as tiny droplets at very high concentrations, altering cell activity. The results were first presented in a research paper published in 2009 in the journal Science.
Proteins are usually like fluids that flow inside the cell, but during studies with single-celled embryos of C.
During the process, called “phase separation,” every beehive droplet is frantic from chemical reactions. But once these reactions are over – often within seconds – the dip disappears.
“Phase separation is like a flash mob – someone plays music and the proteins clump together. Turn off the music and go away again.”
A new way to understand degenerative diseases
It is a difficult and abstract concept to understand. If phase separation is like a flash mob, what music drives the reaction, and who are the dancers?
Hyman demonstrated that the discovery of phase separation applies to nearly all aspects of biomolecular events. First, the research helps scientists better understand degenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s disease.
Experts have known for decades that ALS and Alzheimer’s are caused by the accumulation of proteins in cells. Hyman said pathologists are finding “protein aggregates,” or stable arrays of non-motile proteins, in the brains of people who have died of these diseases.
In Alzheimer’s patients, for example, condensers of proteins called tau proteins aggregate in neurons and become aggregates.
By losing their dynamic properties, they become toxic, causing the death of neurons in the brain. Over time, this leads to symptoms such as dementia.
In this example, the dancers Hyman alluded to would be tau proteins. They gather in aggregates in the hive, but something goes wrong, causing them to get stuck in this formation. Hyman’s discovery tells us how this might happen.
What is music in this case is less clear. What causes tau proteins to clump in the first place? What causes neurodegenerative diseases? The hope is that eventually Hyman’s discovery will help us learn more about the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease – and how to treat them.
blue sky flag
The impact of Hyman’s discovery extends beyond research in neurodegenerative diseases. It is now understood that phase separation is a fundamental property of how all cells function.
Hyman explained that the goal of biological sciences is to treat diseases, but to get to that point you need to fund “blue sky” science.
Funding a mysterious research, he explained, is like planting baby acorns — you never know which will grow into a large acorn.
“The only way we can make better healthcare decisions and develop new treatments is by understanding the exact problems of a disease. If a mechanic doesn’t know how a car works, it’s nearly impossible to fix it. Scientists face a much tougher task – we’re trying to understand a system we didn’t design or build ourselves. “.
Hyman’s research helps us understand the basis of how cells work — not just the nuts and bolts, but also the physics of how they work.
“Every cell in your body has about 5 billion proteins inside it — roughly the number of people on Earth. This is an incredibly complex system that evolved over 3 billion years. The implications of that are that we can go out and eat a huge bowl of spaghetti and deal with an increase in The complex molecular arrangements in cells make this happen, and that’s what I plan to use with the prize money to find out, Hyman said.