2017 Milstein Lecture to be given by Thomas Südhof

Professor Thomas Südhof
Photo: Alena Soboleva

Professor Thomas Südhof will give the 2017 Milstein Lecture on Thursday 9th February 2017 at 4pm in the LMB’s Max Perutz Lecture Theatre. The lecture, entitled “Molecular Mechanisms of Synaptic Transmission”, is open to anyone in the local area who is interested in attending.

Thomas is Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology in the School of Medicine at Stanford University. He is also an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His lab studies how synapses form in the brain, how their properties are specified, and how they accomplish the rapid and precise signaling that forms the basis for all information processing by the brain.

Thomas received his MD degree and doctoral degree in 1982 from Göttingen’s Georgia Augusta Universität and the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, respectively. He then trained as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. It was during this time that he elucidated the structure, expression and cholesterol-dependent regulation of the LDL receptor gene. He went on to start his own lab at Dallas in 1986 with the initial purpose of looking at what synaptic vesicles are composed of, and how they undergo exo- and endocytosis – what is the mechanism of neurotransmitter release that underlies all synaptic transmission. Moving his lab to Stanford University in 2008, Thomas decided to redirect a large part of his efforts towards a major problem in neuroscience that appeared to be unexplored, how synapses are formed.

Thomas won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2013 along with James Rothman and Randy Schekman, “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells”.

Lecture abstract

Thomas Südhof’s research investigates how neurons in the brain communicate with each other during synaptic transmission, which is the process that underlies all brain activity, from simple reflexes to consciousness and memory. When stimulated, a presynaptic neuron releases neurotransmitters that diffuse across the synaptic cleft to stimulate postsynaptic receptors. Synaptic transmission is initiated by neurotransmitter release, and completed with the postsynaptic response. However, synaptic transmission is more than just the transfer of information between neurons – synaptic transmission also processes the transferred information. Each synapse integrates temporal and spatial information and is plastic. As a result, synapses are nanocomputers that remember previous events and constitute the minimal information processing unit in brain.

Thomas’ lab studies three related questions about synapses: How are presynaptic and postsynaptic components of a synapse organised in molecular terms to allow rapid transfer of information, including ultrafast release of neurotransmitters? How is synaptic plasticity achieved? And finally, how is a synapse formed, specified and maintained or eliminated in a circuit-specific fashion? The talk will focus on the first question, and specifically describe the molecular machines that allow pre- and postsynaptic function and enable plasticity of release. The talk will revolve around one particular family of molecules, calcium-binding proteins called synaptotagmins, that are master organisers of pre- and postsynaptic membrane traffic, and will discuss recent results that provide insight into the intricate nanoarchitecture that allows a synapse to function rapidly and precisely.

Background information

The Milstein Lecture, named in honour of the LMB Nobel Laureate César Milstein, is one of a series of lectures organised by the LMB and given by eminent scientists from around the world. César was born in Argentina in 1927. After completing PhDs in both Buenos Aires and Cambridge, and a brief spell of research back in Argentina, he joined the LMB in 1963 and spent the rest of his life here. He developed an early interest in immunology, and his research concentrated on antibody structure and diversity. In the early 1970′s he and his post-doc Georges Köhler developed the technique to produce monoclonal antibodies, for which they were jointly awarded the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. This technique has been used for diagnostics and developed further by LMB colleagues for therapeutic applications, leading to the creation of several MRC spin-out companies. César continued his research on how somatic mutation arises in immunoglobulin genes. He died in Cambridge on 24 March 2002.

Further references

Thomas Südhof ‘s lab page
Thomas Südhof’s HHMI page
Nobel Prize biography
Poster for the Milstein Lecture