Deceased Academicians

Günter Blobel


Günter Blobel

Date of birth 21 May 1936

Place Waltersdorf/Silesia (Germany, now Poland), Poland (Europe)

Nomination 28 September 2001

Field Cell Biology

Title Professor, Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine, 1999

Place and date of death New York City, NY, USA † 18 February 2018

  • Biography
  • Publications
  • Commemoration

Most important awards, prizes and academies
Academies: National Academy of Sciences (1983); Leopoldina (1983); Honorary Member of the Japanese Biochemical Society (1983); American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1984); Associate Member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (1986); Honorary Member of the German Society of Cell Biology (1988); American Philosophical Society (1989); Institute of Medicine (2000); Orden Pour le Mérite (2001); Pontifical Academy of Sciences (2001). Awards: US Steel Award in Molecular Biology (1978); The Gairdner Foundation Award (1982); The Warburg Medal of the German Biochemical Society (1983); The Richard Lounsbery Award (1983); The V.D. Mattia Award (1986); The Wilson Medal of the American Society for Cell Biology (with D.D. Sabatini) (1986); The Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize (1987); The Waterford Bio-Medical Science Award (1989); The Max-Plank Forcshungspreis (1992); Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award (1993); Ciba Drew Award in Biomedical Research (with J. Schlessinger and A. Levine) (1995); King Faisal International Prize for Science (with J. Rothman and H. Pelham) (1996); Mayor's Award for Excellence in Science and Technology (with R. Axel) (1997); Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1999); Ellis Island Medal of Hon. (2000). Honours: President of the American Society for Cell Biology (1990); Grosse Bundesvererdienstkreuz mit Stern (2000); Honorary Senator, Technical Institute of Dresden (2000). Honorary degrees: Doctor of Medicine, the Mt. Sinai Medical Center, New York City, USA (1994); Doctor of Medicine, Yeshiva University, New York City, USA (2000); Doctor of Philosophy, Technische Universität Bergakademie, Freiberg, Germany (2001); Doctor of Science, Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter, MN, USA (2001); Doctor of Philosophy, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany (2002); Doctor of Medical Sciences, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic (2003); Doctor of Philosophy, The Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania (2003).

Summary of scientific research
Prof. Blobel obtained his medical degree from the University of Tübingen in 1960. He moved to the United States in 1963, gained a Ph.D. degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1967 and subsequently spent two years at the laboratory of George Palade (Pontifical Academician, Nobel Prize in Medicine 1974) at the Rockefeller University in New York. Professor Blobel has since remained at the Rockefeller University, rising to Assistant Professor in 1969, Associate Professor in 1973, Professor in 1976, and John D. Rockefeller Jr Professor in 1992. Since 1986 he has been an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Institute. Professor Blobel is a distingushed cell biologist, known worldwide for having elucitated the mechanisms whereby newly formed proteins are transferred from their site of synthesis in the cytosol to their final location inside or outside the cell. His contributions have been recognised by a large number of awards, the latest one being the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1999. In recent years, Professor Blobel has created a foundation, the Friends of Dresden, Inc. which has already raised several million dollars for the reconstruction of the monuments of the city destroyed by Allied bombing during the Second World War, in particular the Frauenkirche and the Synagogue. Professor Blobel donated most of his Nobel Prize money to this foundation.

Main publications
Blobel, G. and Dobberstein, B., Transfer of proteins across membranes. I. Presence of proteolytically processed and unprocessed nascent immunoglobulin light chains on membrane-bound ribosomes of murine myeloma, J. Cell Biol., 67, pp. 835-51 (1975); Blobel, G. and Dobberstein, B., Transfer of proteins across membranes. II. Reconstitution of functional rough microsomes from heterologous components, J. Cell Biol., 67, pp. 852-62 (1975); Lingappa, V.R., Katz, F.N., Lodish, H.F. and Blobel, G., A Signal Sequence for the insertion of a transmembrane glycoprotein: Similarities to the signals of secretory proteins in primary structure and function, J. Biol. Chem., 253, pp. 8667-70 (1978); Blobel, G., Intracellular protein topogenesis, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 77, pp. 1496-1500 (1980); Walter, P. and Blobel, G., Signal recognition particle contains a 7S RNA essential for protein translocation across the endoplasmic reticulum, Nature, 299, pp. 691-8 (1982); Gilmore, R., Blobel, G. and Walter, P., Protein translocation across the endoplasmic reticulum. I. Detection in the microsomal membrane of a receptor for the signal recognition particle, J. Cell Biol., 95, pp. 463-9 (1982); Gilmore, R., Walter, P. and Blobel, G., Protein translocation across the endoplasmic reticulum. II. Isolation and characterization of the signal recognition particle receptor, J. Cell Biol., 95, pp. 470-7 (1982); Simon, S.M. and Blobel, G., A protein-conducting channel in the endoplasmic reticulum, Cell, 65, pp. 371-80 (1991); Moore, M.S. and Blobel, G., The GTP-binding protein Ran/TC4 is required for protein import into the nucleus, Nature, 365, pp. 661-3 (1993); Chook, Y.M. and Blobel, G., Structure of the karyopherin β2-ran GppNHp nuclear transport complex, Nature, 399, pp. 230-7 (1999); Beckmann, R., Spahn, C.M.T., Eswar, N., Helmers, J., Penczek, P.A., Sali, A., Frank, J. and Blobel, G., Architecture of the protein-conducting channel associated with the translating 80S ribosome, Cell, 107, pp. 361-72 (2001).

Günter Blobel was a cell biologist born 81 years ago in Silesia, eastern Germany, now part of Poland. He had a colourful life. He had an idyllic childhood during the Second World War – his village was untouched by the war – and had to move ahead of the Red Army at the age of 8. For the first time he saw his first large city in Dresden, where he greatly admired the architecture of the Frauenkirche, the Church of the Virgin, and a few days later, staying with relatives thirty kilometres away, he saw the sky light up with fire during the fire bombing of Dresden, so clearly you could read the newspaper under the fire of Dresden. Impressed by this, he later used his Nobel Prize in 1999 as the seed money for a foundation for the reconstruction of the Dresden Frauenkirche and the synagogue there. That’s the colourful part.

The most interesting part of Blobel’s life is his science, because it provides an example of the epistemology of biology, how we do biology. In the 19th century, French physiologist Claude Bernard published a book on the introduction to experimental medicine. I once gave a whole talk here on that, and how, in experimental biology, we construct an idea in our minds, and then we test it by experiments. So Blobel, who studied medicine in West Germany and then did a PhD in Wisconsin, ended up in the laboratory of George Palade, who was a member of this Academy, at Rockefeller. And Palade had discovered that secreted proteins go to the endoplasmic reticulum to be secreted, while other proteins do not, and so he wanted to know, how is it that some proteins go to the secreted pathway and others do not. And there, in the lab of Palade, he teamed up with a young assistant professor called David Sabatini and they produced a hypothesis of how this might work, in their own minds. David Sabatini was a graduate student of my father in Argentina, and now we have his son, sitting right there. So they came up with an idea without any proof, so this was very much resistant, and their idea was the signal hypothesis. They said maybe the way the proteins go into the endoplasmic reticulum is because there is something in the messenger RNA, in the protein, a signal in the beginning of the protein that is going to tell the ribosome using a signal recognition particle, so the beginning of the protein will have a signal that will bind it to the membrane of the endoplasmic reticulum so that it can be secreted in the microsomes. So ribosomes have a small sub-unit and a large sub-unit so this one starts first, and they actually produced this, there will be a signal in the beginning of the protein that will put it out of the endoplasmic reticulum.

This was in 1971 but they had no evidence for this. Sabatini had discovered that there was a channel in the large sub-unit of the ribosome that protected the nascent peptide from degradation, and then he had also found that the large sub-unit binds first to the membranes. Except for that there was no evidence, so this was very much resisted and criticised, and Blobel kept on working on this until in 1975 he could publish two papers with Dobberstein, reconstructing the system in-vitro by adding ribosomes and membranes and messenger RNA and showing that it is the property of the messenger RNA which will lead the protein inside the membranes and make it resistant to protease. 

Now this is an example of how you can come up with an idea and prove it only five years later, and it proved to be correct, and so this is the famous signal hypothesis, and in recognition of this he got the Nobel Prize in 1999. He was a great cell biologist in the school of Palade, who was here in this Academy too.

Edward M. De Robertis

Professional Address

The Rockefeller University
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Laboratory of Cell Biology
1930 York Avenue
New York, NY 10021 (USA)