Protein degradation is a gripping tale--verging on melodrama--in the hands of Aaron Ciechanover. "Every protein has its story," says the 2004 Nobelist in chemistry from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. His plenary talk yesterday began with a quick tour of the rollercoaster ride his field has taken in recent decades, from prominence to obscurity and back. Biology's fascination with the double helix and all that it brought seemed to shunt everything else aside for a time. Ciechanover's main theme was the enduring importance of ubiquitin, the molecule that he says delivers the universal "kiss of death" to molecules within the body. Proteins embraced by it are doomed to destruction. Without it, deadly errors accumulate.
DNA analysis has revealed a stunning fact about this "garbage collecting" system, he says: Perhaps 20% of the human genome is dedicated to maintaining it. And ubiquitin is so essential that it has been highly conserved though evolution, says Ciechanover. "I could take ubiquitin from a salmon or yeast, and make it work [in vitro] for a human" model. With glee he remarks that not too long ago, "you would have been sent to a mental hospital" if you had suggested that a fifth of the genome was involved in ubiquitin.
Now a ubiquitin-based discovery has been developed into one successful drug for cancer (velcade), and a second is coming. But Ciechanover sees all this as simply fortuitous: "I was never interested in cancer…I never thought I would write the word 'cancer' in a grant."
Fashion is fickle--that's one of Ciechanover's messages to young scientists. Other advice? Pick a good mentor. Don't do what's fashionable, especially if you're in a small country, because you will run into "unbelievable competition" from rich labs around the world. Finally, "Don't worry where you publish; people will notice if it is important."
After his plenary talk, Ciechanover continued his career counseling on a more intimate level with a group of young scientists (pictured) at ESOF's popular "Tapas with the Professor." ScienceCareers.org listened in and will provide the details on its blog.