The quadrillion synaptic connections among the neurons of a human brain ought to be enough to intimidate a researcher trying to delve into the mystery of thought, emotion and action.
Molecular biologists Thomas Sudhof and Richard Scheller were apparently undaunted, and focused on a small but crucial part of the neurons. In the process, they managed to unlock the molecular mystery of the chemical communication that ties together this vast network of electrochemically firing cells into the most sophisticated computer on Earth.
The two, both linked to Stanford University, were awarded the prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award on Monday.
Their work, conducted separately and somewhat in rivalry, is to neurobiology what particle physics is to astronomy: a minutely scaled process that ultimately explains unfathomably complex systems.
"This is like finding the alphabet," said Dr. Jose Rizo-Rey, chairman of molecular biophysics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, a longtime collaborator with Sudhof, who now is a professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Sudhof did the bulk of the award-winning research while at UT Southwestern, before moving to Stanford's medical school in 2008, where he has made further advances into the pathology behind Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.
Scheller conducted his research while at Stanford and moved on to the biotech industry, where he is chief scientific officer of Genentech, now part of the Roche Group.
From the early 1990s onward, the duo's work unraveling the molecular ballet among proteins that facilitate communication across synapses had the appearance of separate hands frantically assembling a puzzle, sometimes clutching the same piece.
Scheller’s laboratory at Stanford first discovered a key membrane protein in the vesicles containing neurotransmitters by using the electric organ of a marine ray, according to the Lasker Foundation. A year later, Sudhof identified the same protein in a rat brain and went on to identify a crucial vesicle protein whose functions Scheller clarified. And so it went through the turn of the century, as new discoveries of proteins and their encoding genes steadily unraveled the microbiology of signaling in the brain’s fundamental building block, the neuron.
Neither scientist was immediately available for comment Monday.
Rizo-Rey described Sudhof as intensely curious and still deeply involved in laboratory work. "Very often he proposes experiments that I should have thought about," Rizo-Rey said. "He works extremely hard."