Dirk Görlich receives Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine 2024

January 23, 2024

The Louis-Jeantet Foundation honors the Director at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Multidisciplinary Sciences for discovering a new kind of biological matter that acts as a highly selective barrier to control central transport pathways in the cell. He has made groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of the processes by which macromolecules are transported into and out of the cell nucleus, the foundation said. The prestigious award is endowed with 500,000 Swiss francs (around 537,000 euros).

Görlich studies how cells solve the logistical challenge of getting their proteins to the right place. This includes importing thousands of different proteins into the cell nucleus but also keeping many others outside. This sorting is accomplished by one of nature’s most efficient protein transport machines, so-called nuclear pore complexes (NPCs) that are embedded into the envelope of the nucleus.

NPCs feature a mysterious functional duality: They are rather impermeable to most macromolecules. However, certain “transporters” called importins and exportins are literally sucked into the central NPC channel and released again on the other side. This can happen very fast – up to a thousand times per pore per second. Görlich’s team was instrumental in discovering and analyzing these transporters. They capture macromolecular cargoes and either deliver them into the nucleus or export them from cell nuclei.

“Intelligent” barrier at the cell nucleus

Görlich and his team have discovered a remarkable material, the “FG phase” that is key to the powerful transport function of NPCs. This material is a “condensate” of so-called FG repeat domains – disordered but typically cohesive (sticky) regions of certain nucleoporins. The jelly-like FG phase acts as an “intelligent” barrier, filling the central channel of nuclear pores and sorting macromolecules. Itrepels unwanted macromolecules but is a good “solvent” and transport medium for importins and exportins together with their cargo. Where the transporter binds to an FG repeat, FG meshes transiently disengage; the transporter and its cargo can glide through the jelly. As they pass through, the meshes close again behind the transporter.

The FG phase initially appeared to be an exotic form of biological matter. However, we now know that it represents a general principle in living cells. It was just a first example of a wide range of cellular condensates that form in a similar way and function as ‘mini-laboratories’ to coordinate and regulate biochemical reactions. The Louis-Jeantet Prize is a wonderful recognition for our entire team after many years of joint research,” said the prize winner.

Opening up a new field of research

“The transport of macromolecules between cytoplasm and nucleus is fundamental for eukaryotic life and also highly relevant for disease,” says Holger Stark, Managing Director of the MPI for Multidisciplinary Sciences. Dirk Görlich was the first to explain how molecular transporters and the FG phase work together as a highly efficient “pump” for macromolecules. “With the discovery of the FG phase, he has opened up a completely new field of research. We are delighted that our colleague has been honored with this well-deserved award.”

After Bert Sakmann, Peter Gruss, Herbert Jäckle, and Patrick Cramer, Dirk Görlich is the fifth scientist at the MPI for Multidisciplinary Sciences to receive this award. (cr)

About the award winner

Dirk Görlich studied biochemistry in Halle and completed his doctoral thesis at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin. After a two-year research stay at the Wellcome / CRC Institute (now the Gurdon Institute) in Cambridge (United Kingdom), he was appointed research group leader in 1996 and Professor of Molecular Biology at the Center for Molecular Biology at Heidelberg University in 2001. Since 2007, he has headed the Department of Cellular Logistics at the MPI for Multidisciplinary Sciences (until 31.12.2021: MPI for Biophysical Chemistry). Dirk Görlich has received numerous scientific awards, including the Heinz Maier-Leibnitz Prize, the EMBO Gold Medal, the Alfried Krupp Prize, the WLA Prize 2022, and the Animal Welfare Research Prize of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. He is a member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.

About the Louis-Jeantet Prize

The Louis-Jeantet Prizes were first awarded in 1986. Since then, up to three prizes have been awarded each year to researchers working in the field of biomedicine in one of the member states of the Council of Europe. The award recognizes completed work and is intended to support future innovative research projects by the prize winners.

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