Nakasone Award honors Brangwynne's pioneering discoveries in biology

By Tom Garlinghouse
November 05, 2020

Clifford Brangwynne, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Princeton University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is one of two recipients of this year’s Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Nakasone Award. The other recipient is Anthony Hyman of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany.

They jointly won the award for their discovery “of a new state of biological matter, phase-separated macromolecule condensates, that play an important role in cell organisation, gene regulation, signalling and pathology,” an HFSP press release reported.

Their research, first published in 2009, laid the groundwork for subsequent studies into phase separation biology, which is one of the fastest growing areas of cell biology. While studying the biomolecular chemistry of Caenorhabditis elegans, a roundworm commonly used in laboratory research, the scientists discovered that P-granules, which consist of specific proteins and RNAs that are involved in passing on genetic material to succeeding generations, were behaving as if they were liquids rather than solids. These P-granules, they realized, are actually liquid droplets that form through a process of phase separation. As such, they can either merge, separate or flow throughout the cell thereby hastening or slowing down any number of needed biochemical reactions. This discovery revealed a new form of intracellular matter—phase-separated macromolecule condensates. The pair used this observation to correctly predict that this behavior would be widespread in biology. For example, they soon discovered that nucleoli, where ribosomes are created in the nucleus, are also phase separated liquid condensates.

“The stunning discoveries of Anthony Hyman and Cliff Brangwynne are a textbook example of how biology is shaped by biophysical processes,” said Warwick P. Anderson, HFSPO Secretary-General. “Research by the HFSP Nakasone Award winners demonstrates the benefits resulting from basic research at the frontiers of the life sciences.”

Their work not only led to an explosion of research and a plethora of scientific papers on the subject, it also stimulated an entire industry, with several biotech companies and laboratories now working in the area of phase separation biology. The potential of this field in understanding and treating human disease is recognized worldwide by scientists.

Prior to joining the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Princeton faculty in 2011, Brangwynne was a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems from 2007 to 2010. He received a Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard University in 2007. A leader in the bio-engineering field at Princeton, he has won numerous awards during his career, including a Searle Scholar, NSF Career Award, NIH New Innovator Award, ASCB Emerging Leader, Sloan Fellow, and a Blavatnik National Award. In 2018 he was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

The HFSP Nakasone Award is given annually to researchers who have demonstrated significant breakthroughs in biology and the life sciences. It is named in honor of Japan’s former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, whose foresight led to the founding of the International Human Frontier Science Program Organization (HFSPO) in 1989. Its aim is “to promote, through international cooperation, basic research focused on the elucidation of the sophisticated and complex mechanisms of living organisms.”

Brangwynne will be speaking at the upcoming Princeton Bioengineering Symposium to be held online November 20. The event is free and open to the public.