Definition of Rodbell, Martin

Reviewed on 6/3/2021

Rodbell, Martin: (1925-1998) American biochemist and molecular endocrinologist who shared the Nobel Prize in 1994 in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of G-proteins and the principles of signal transduction in cellular communication.

Martin Rodbell was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of a grocer. For the rest of his life, he proudly identified with his native city as a self-described "Baltimoron." In his teens, Rodbell attended Baltimore City College, a "magnet" public high school with a strong liberal arts tradition, and entered The Johns Hopkins University in 1943. Although he was clearly taken with science as a vocation, at Hopkins he followed two seemingly disparate fields of interest--biology and French existential literature--both of which had an enormous impact on his intellectual development. Rodbell maintained a strong love of literature and poetry throughout his life, often penning verses for important occasions.

Rodbell's studies at Hopkins were interrupted in 1944 when he left college for war service as a Navy radio operator. In 1946, he resumed his studies and earned a B.S. in biology in 1949. Rodbell remained at Hopkins for another year to take postgraduate courses in chemistry. In 1950, he married Barbara Ledermann, a German-born dancer and photographer; later that same year, the Rodbells moved to Seattle so that Martin could enter the Ph.D. program in biochemistry at the University of Washington. Over the course of the following decade, the Rodbells had four children: Paul, Suzanne, Andrew, and Phillip.

In 1954, Rodbell completed his doctoral thesis, under the direction of Donald Hanahan, on aspects of the metabolism of lecithin (a complex mixture of phospholipids) in the liver. In the fall of that year, Rodbell accepted a postdoctoral position as a research associate in biochemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he stayed for two years. Working as a junior instructor in biochemistry at Illinois, he realized that his true calling was not in teaching but rather in continuing his research on the biochemistry of lecithin in cell membranes.

In 1956, Rodbell accepted a position as a research biochemist in the laboratory of Christian Anfinsen at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. During this time, Rodbell studied the composition of lipid proteins and glucose in adipose (or fat) tissue. By the mid-1960s, Rodbell's research interests had shifted from the metabolic functions of lipid proteins to the effect of hormones (especially insulin and glucagon) on individual cells. In 1969, Rodbell outlined a system for describing the components of cellular communication that he called "signal transduction." Signal transduction theory helped him discover the importance and function of G-proteins in the early 1970s, which became the basis for his Nobel prize-winning contribution to biomedical science.

During his lifetime, Rodbell was a seasoned traveler, a writer of poetry, and a humanitarian scientist. In 1990, for example, he was briefly involved with Gordon Sato's Manzanar Project, established to create fish ponds in the Eritrean section of Ethiopia to help stave off famine. Among his other pursuits, Rodbell spent a year working in laboratories at the University of Brussels in Belgium and Leiden University in the Netherlands (1960-1961) and twice held visiting professorships at the Institute of Clinical Biochemistry, University of Geneva (1967-1968 and 1981-1983). He also traveled extensively throughout Canada, France, India, Israel, and the United States. He routinely facilitated meetings between graduate and postdoctoral students--many of whom still consider themselves Rodbell proteges--and the larger international community of scientists and scholars working on topics in molecular biology.

In 1994 Rodbell, along with Alfred G. Gilman of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.


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