Published: 10-12-2013 14:27 | Updated: 16-01-2014 15:15

Nobel lectures attract over 1,000 people to the Aula Medica

The Nobel lectures, held by this year's laureates in physiology or medicine, filled Karolinska Institutet's auditorium on 7 December. James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof are due to receive their Nobel medals today.

The lectures given by the three Nobel laureates at Karolinska Institutet were a blend of personal anecdote and scientific fact about vesical traffic.

By the time the doors opened an hour or so before the Nobel lectures in physiology or medicine were due to begin, the queue had stretched far down the street in a snowy white Stockholm. A couple of dozen ushers, dressed in national costume, helped the audience to their seats, and after having set out a few last-minute chairs in the auditorium, it was standing-room only.

Once Karolinska Institutet's vice chancellor, Professor Anders Hamsten, had opened proceedings, Nobel Committee member Professor Urban Lendahl introduced the speakers, all of whom have made important discoveries on how tiny bubbles called vesicles transport molecules in our cells to the right place and at the right time.

James Rothman related how he originally wanted to be a neuroscientist and study the transfer of neurotransmitters in the brain. But fate had different plans for him, and he plumped for his second choice, biochemistry, instead. It was much later that he returned to analysing brain tissue, which is when he discovered the protein complex that allows the vesicles to deliver their payloads to the right place in the cell.

James Rothman had almost 50 personal guests in the audience, while his two co-laureates had each brought a dozen so to Stockholm.

"They say I've brought more guests here than any other Nobel Laureate ever," he said with a smile after his lecture. "But that's only because the Nobel Committee waited so long to give me the prize! If I'd have got it 10 or 15 years ago, I'd have had fewer friends". He then grew a little more serious as he passed on some advice to the students:

"The most important piece of advice I can give today's students is to hold on to the friends they make over the years."

Randy Schekman held the second lecture, and opened by indicating the presence of his 86-year old father, who had always dreamt of his sons winning the Nobel Prize, in the audience.

He then recounted one of the greatest moments in his scientific career by showing a black-and-white photograph of a yeast cell packed with vesicles. For this was the sight that greeted him when he first saw an electron microscope image of a yeast cell with a mutation in one of the 23 genes that he later linked to different functions of cellular vesicle traffic.

Thomas Südhof talked about the molecular components that enable the release of signal molecules in the brain. Of all the scientific advances he has made, the one he remembers best is the discovery of the crucial role played by the protein synaptotagmin in rapid calcium-triggered neurotransmitter release.

When the lectures were over, all three laureates took their place on the stage, which was decorated with illuminated Christmas trees, to receive a standing ovation.

When asked afterwards what he and the two other laureates have in common, Randy Schekman chuckled:

"Not much! We have very different personalities and very different ways of doing research. But you know it's the personal commitment that makes science so much fun. Researchers aren't pre-programmed robots. We're impassioned practitioners of an artistic profession."

The Nobel lectures marked the start of a busy week for the three laureates. Today, for example, they are due to receive their medals from the King.

Text: Lisa Reimegård

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