Breakthrough Prize Recognizes Discovery at MBL of New Organizing Principle in Cells

Members of the MBL-HHMI Summer Institute, which did foundational work in the new field of biomolecular phase separation from 2013-2017. Clifford Brangwynne is back row, far right. Credit: Tom Kleindinst

WOODS HOLE, Mass. – The discovery of a fundamental way for cells to organize internally, first recognized in the 2008 Physiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), has been honored by the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences awarded to Anthony Hyman and Clifford Brangwynne, then instructors in the course.

The Breakthrough Prize, renowned as the “Oscars of Science,” are presented annually in the fields of life sciences, fundamental physics, and mathematics “to recognize the world’s top scientists working in the fundamental sciences – the disciplines that ask the biggest questions and find the deepest explanations.” Laureates receive a $3 million prize and are honored at a globally broadcast awards ceremony (date to be announced).

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Brangwynne, Hyman, MBL Physiology course students, and colleagues solved a longstanding mystery of how cells create order in the millions of molecules that zip around within their boundaries. As they observed in nematode worms in the course, and later confirmed as a general principle, cells spontaneously form liquid-like droplets that concentrate some molecules in a membrane-free drop, while excluding others. These “condensates,” which usually contain protein and RNA, form by a phase separation process, similar to water vapor condensing into dew.

This observation ended up having major reverberations. Since 2008, evidence has mounted that condensates regulate many critical cellular processes, from cell division to gene expression, and are involved in the development of diseases that include cancer, neurodegenerative disease, Covid-19, and others. Several biotech companies have formed to pursue medical applications of condensate research.

“The MBL is the birthplace of this field, because so much happened here,” Brangwynne says, including foundational discoveries that issued from a collaborative, five-year initiative at the MBL (2013-2017) funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“The discovery of biomolecular condensates has fundamentally changed how we think about cellular processes and disease,” said MBL Director Nipam Patel. “It is a tribute to the tremendous value of the MBL’s education and training programs that the original observation was in the Physiology course, and that in the decade to follow, many scientists associated with the MBL vastly extended the observation and pioneered a new field of study.”

The Breakthrough Prize was founded in 2013 by high-tech pioneers Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.

“The laureates honored today embody the remarkable power of fundamental science,” said Yuri Milner, “both to reveal deep truths about the Universe, and to improve human lives.”

 “The 2023 laureates have produced absolutely stellar science,” said Anne Wojcicki. “The creativity, ingenuity and sheer perseverance that went into this work is awe-inspiring.”

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The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.

Additional resources:

Clifford Brangwynne’s Friday Evening Lecture at MBL (2021)

Current Condensate Research and Training at the MBL (Summer of 2022)

Description of the Original Discovery in the Physiology Course

MBL Press Release on Physiology Course Discovery (2009)