February 26, 2018History of Medicine
Gunter Blobel (May 21, 1936 - February 18, 2018 was a Silesian German and American biologist and 1999 Nobel Prize laureate in Physiology for the discovery that proteins have intrinsic signals that govern their transport and localization in the cell. Blobel was born in Waltersdorf in the Prussian Province of Lower Silesia, now a part of Poland. In January 1945 his family fled from native Silesia from the advancing Red Army. After the war Blobel grew up and attended gymnasium in the Saxon town of Freiberg. He graduated at the University of Tubingen in 1960 with MD and received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1967. Blobel joined the Rockefeller University faculty 51 years ago where he was the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor. He was also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator since 1986.
Blobel was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of signal peptides. Signal peptides form an integral part of protein targeting, a mechanism for cells to direct newly synthesized protein molecules to their proper location by means of an address tag (i.e. a signal peptide) within the molecule. Proteins that are manufactured within cells must be transported to the sites where they are needed. Blobel discovered a system of intrinsic signals that explain how cells are able to accurately distribute billions of such proteins within a cell each day. Along with his colleagues, Blobel learned that sequences in proteins were responsible for directing traffic, matching up these zip codes with transport machinery in the cell that facilitate targeting to the proper cellular membranes. This connection results in the proteins either passing through the membranes or becoming embedded within them. His observations were central to uniting the fields of molecular biology, which deals primarily with proteins and nucleic acids, and cell biology, which is focused on the structures inside cells, called organelles. In addition, he found that the same system plays a role across all eukaryotes, ranging from yeast to humans.
Blobel became well known for his direct and active support for the rebuilding of Dresden in Germany, becoming, in 1994, the founder and president of the nonprofit Friends of Dresden, Inc. He donated all of the Nobel award money to the restoration of Dresden, in particular for the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche (completed in 2005) and the building of a new synagogue. In Leipzig he pursued a rebuilding of the Paulinerkirche, the university church of the University of Leipzig, which had been blown up by the communist regime of East Germany in 1968, arguing this is a shrine of German cultural history, connected to the most important names in German cultural history. In addition to his research at the Rockefeller University in New York City from 1968 to 2018, Blobel lived in Manhattan's Upper East Side with his wife, Laura Maioglio (owner of Barbetta Restaurant in Manhattan). He was on the board of directors for Nestle and the Board of Scientific Governors at The Scripps Research Institute. Furthermore, he was Co-Founder and Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board for Chromocell Corporation. He sat on the Selection Committee for Life Science and Medicine which chooses winners of the Shaw Prize.