Top Scientists of 2012

A roundup of those awarded this year’s most prestigious scientific prizes

Jef Akst
Jef Akst
Dec 17, 2012

The Nobels

Shinya Yamanaka(left) and John B. Gurdon (right)NOBELPRIZE.ORGJohn Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan took home this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of different ways in which the cells of an adult organism can return to an embryonic-like state. Gurdon became widely known as the “the godfather of cloning” after he published a landmark study in 1962 demonstrating that the nucleus of an adult frog cell could be transplanted into a frog egg whose nucleus had been removed to generate a viable, cloned tadpole. Yamanaka made a name for himself in 2006, when he discovered four genes that are capable of reprogramming an adult mouse cell into what are now known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

“Gurdon and Yamanaka fundamentally changed the way we all think about the specialized state of cells,”...

This year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian K. Kobilka of Stanford for their work on the structure and function of cell surface receptors known as G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCR). “They have helped us to develop deeper insights in to the mechanisms of cell reactions and the molecular structures behind them—insights that help us to understand the beautiful complexity of the chemical world inside us,” Bassam Shakhashiri, president of the American Chemical Society, told The Scientist. “Their contributions are extremely useful. Every day thousands of chemists use the results of their research in developing new pharmaceuticals for use in society.”


The Laskers

Ronald Vale (left), James Spudich (center), and Michael Sheetz (right) take home the 2012 Lasker Award for basic medical research.LASKER FOUNDATIONThree life science Lasker Awards were announced this September. Work on cytoskeletal motor proteins was recognized by this year’s basic medical research award, which was shared by Michael Sheetz of Columbia University, James Spudich of Stanford University, and Ronald Vale of the University of California, San Francisco. These proteins are involved in transporting cargo, contracting muscles, and enabling cell movement. The three researchers “established ways to study molecular motors in detail,” according to the Lasker announcement. “[Their] landmark achievements . . . are driving drug-discovery efforts aimed at cardiac problems as well as cancer.”

A second Lasker Award, in the category of clinical medical research, was given to Thomas Starzl of the University of Pittsburgh and Roy Calne, an emeritus professor at Cambridge University, for the development of liver transplantation. Such a procedure, once “deemed an impossible dream,” according to the Lasker announcement, is now a mainstay in the clinic, thanks to Starzl and Calne, who showed that transplanted livers were functional, and that steps could be taken to avoid organ rejection.

Finally, Donald Brown of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore and Tom Maniatis of Columbia University took this year’s Lasker for special achievement in medical science for “exceptional leadership and citizenship in biomedical science,” according to the announcement.


The Kyotos

Yoshinori OhsumiINAMORI FOUNDATIONAnd last but not least, molecular cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi of Tokyo Institute of Technology took home this year’s only life science-related Kyoto Prize for his work on autophagy, the adaptive process by which cell digests proteins and organelles in times of stress. His work has focused on autophagy in yeast, where Ohsumi “has made groundbreaking contributions toward elucidating of the molecular mechanisms of autophagy and its physiological significance.” (Read more about autophagy—and the longstanding mystery of where the autophagosome gets its double lipid bilayers—in The Scientist’s February feature, “The Enigmatic Membrane.”)