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Rodbell, Martinfree

(01 December 1925–07 December 1999)
  • John S. Emrich

Rodbell, Martin (01 December 1925–07 December 1999), Nobel Prize-winning cell biologist, Nobel Prize–winning cell biologist, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Milton Rodbell, a grocer, and Shirley Abrams Rodbell. Although his parents never attended college, they stressed the importance of education to their son. Rodbell's initial impulses toward science did not come from school but rather from two of his childhood friends. His father did not allow him to have a chemistry set in the basement, which served as the grocery storeroom, so instead the boys used his friend's basement to “try to blow up things and watch mixtures change colors.” The three boys attended Baltimore City College, a highly selective all-boys public high school. The school was patterned after European preparatory schools, which placed a strong emphasis on the liberal arts and offered only a few science courses.

Rodbell entered Johns Hopkins University in the fall of 1943. He was torn between his high school love of languages, especially French, and his grade school love of science. His initial studies at Johns Hopkins, however, were interrupted by World War II. In 1944 Rodbell joined the U.S. Navy and served as a radio operator. Despite his desire as a Jew to fight Adolf Hitler, he spent the majority of his time stationed in the South Pacific. He contracted malaria in the Philippines, then served for the remainder of the war as a radio operator in the Pacific fleet.

In 1946 Rodbell resumed his studies at Johns Hopkins and was attracted to French literature and philosophy. His father, however, wanted him to become a doctor, so he took premed courses. Although put off by the competitive premed atmosphere, he was inspired by the enthusiasm of Bentley Glass, a biology professor. Glass encouraged Rodbell to take chemistry to make up for his deficiency in the subject, and consequently Rodbell stayed an extra year and graduated with a B.A. in 1949.

That year Rodbell met Barbara Ledermann, who came to the United States after surviving the war in the Dutch underground. A photographer and trained ballet dancer, Ledermann performed in a production of a Johns Hopkins drama group. They married in 1950, the day before Rodbell left for the University of Washington to begin his graduate training in biochemistry. The couple had four children.

Rodbell flourished in the youthful Biochemistry Department. He selected Donald Hanahan as his thesis adviser and worked tirelessly in the lab for the next four years. His thesis research focused on how the liver makes lecithin (a complex mixture of lipids), part of the cell membrane. Unfortunately for Rodbell, another researcher working on the same problem disproved the conclusions of his thesis. Rodbell quickly determined that his errors were caused by impurities in some of his chemicals. He learned never rely on the purity of biological chemicals.

After completing his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1954, Rodbell took a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois in the Chemistry Department under Herbert E. Carter. His work at Illinois concerned the biosynthesis of the antibiotic chloramphenicol. After two years at the University of Illinois, he decided to pursue laboratory research. The Rodbell family moved to Maryland, where Martin Rodbell had taken a position with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the organization he remained with for the rest of his life.

Initially his research at the NIH dealt with lipids, but in 1960 he returned to his initial interest in cell biology at the Free University of Brussels and Leiden University, where he received fellowships. Upon returning to the NIH, Rodbell attracted attention when he developed methods to separate and purify fat cells and to remove the fat from cells while not altering the cell structure, which resulted in cells he called “ghosts.”

In 1969 Rodbell formulated a theory about how cells communicate, called “signal transduction.” He proposed that communication among cells was made up of three distinct components: the discriminator, the transducer, and the amplifier. The discriminator, the receptors on the cell membrane, receive the information from outside the cell; the transducer moves the information through the cell membrane; and the amplifier intensifies the signals to begin reactions inside the cell or transmits the information to other cells. The discriminator and amplifier were largely understood, but in 1970 Rodbell discovered that the principal component of the transducer was guanosine triphosphate (GTP), and over the next decade he demonstrated that it activates a protein, the G-protein, in the cell membrane. With his theory and experiments, he discovered the key step in how the cells in the body communicate. This marked the origin of the field of signal transduction.

In late 1970s Alfred Gilman confirmed the existence of the G-protein, and for their discovery of "G-proteins and the role of these proteins in signal transduction in cells," Rodbell and Gilman were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1994. Subsequent research has confirmed the importance of signal transduction by linking malfunctioning G-proteins with the effects of cholera, alcoholism, diabetes, and some cancers among other diseases. Work focuses on developing drugs to target these malfunctioning G-proteins.

In 1985 Rodbell became the scientific director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). He retired in 1994. Rodbell delivered the inaugural NIEHS Rodbell Lecture on 16 November 1998, the day before he went into the hospital for treatment of cardiovascular problems. In his speech, after reflecting on his career and discoveries, he stated, “Nature doesn't always do things the way we expect it to, and we need to have humility about that.” He died in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Bibliography

The Martin Rodbell Papers are at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), which offers a selection along with biographical information at http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/GG/Views/Exhibit/. Rodbell's Nobel autobiography, his Nobel lecture, and the 1994 Nobel Prize press release are available at http://www.nobel.se. The University of Washington site on Rodbell at http://www.washington.edu/alumni/columns/june96/rodbell1.html includes a biography and excerpts from a 1996 university interview with him. Personal accounts of Rodbell by a wide range of people are available at the NIEHS site “In Memory of Dr. Martin Rodbell,” http://www.niehs.nih.gov/external/mrmry.htm. A brief biography of Rodbell is Brigham Narins, Notable Scientists from 1900 to the Present (2001). An obituary is in the New York Times, 11 Dec. 1998.