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An autumnal take on the 2012 Chemistry Nobel prize

Every year since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been awarded to eminent scientists in recognition of astounding achievements and discoveries in their field.

Over the past century or so, this accolade has been awarded to some of the greatest men and women of science, whose work has granted us a phenomenal understanding of our beautiful world.

What, I hear you ask, does this have to do with a sodden, downright miserable Sussex campus in the middle of a dark and gloomy November? The answer lies in the findings of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

On the 10th October, Professors Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka became Nobel Laureates for their work on GPCRs, or G-protein coupled receptors. These receptors are found on the surface of many of the body’s sensory cells and are responsible for the recognition of hormones and chemical signals.

Again, what does this have to do with this grey, oppressive time of year? One hormone these receptors are the sites of recognition for is adrenaline, a familiar hormone to most people that is a major player in the body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. With the days becoming noticeably shorter and the nights drawing in, GPCRs will be working overtime.

That familiar situation of walking alone in the dark with the sudden feeling that you are being followed coming over you is one example of the seasonal relevance of Lefkowitz’s and Kobilka’s work.

 As you give in to paranoia and start to run, stress hormones are released from the adrenal gland and flood the bloodstream. Immediate action is taken by the heart, lungs, liver, muscle tissues and fat deposits as the body tries to increase blood flow to working muscles.

It is the GPCRs that enable the coordination of this response. Without them, chaos would ensue as cells failed to identify hormones, the heart rate stayed the same and you remain stood in the dark, irrationally terrified of what was likely to be a cat on the path behind you.

However, it is not just this ‘fight or flight’ mechanism that GPCRs coordinate. A great deal of the sensory cells within our bodies that detect environmental change possess receptors of this type, such as light receptors in our eyes noticing the beauty of campus’ autumnal trees.

This year’s Prize winners discovered the structure of these receptors and shed some light on how they work.

Due to their presence in so many of the body’s cells, half of all medications involve GPCRs and the work underlying this award has already contributed to the improvement of many people’s lives.

 

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