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Sir Tim Hunt

Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine

2001

Look into your body and you will find cells dividing and replacing themselves to keep you healthy. In the 1980s, Tim Hunt discovered that this highly regulated process is controlled by a family of proteins that he named cyclins, after both their behaviour and his love of cycling. 

It was in 1982 when Tim noticed that one of the proteins in the fertilised sea urchin eggs he was studying was behaving strangely — it would vanish each time the eggs’ cells divided, only to return, build up and then disappear again during the next division. Up to then, programmed proteolysis (the breakdown of proteins) as the key to cell division “had never even been proposed as a theoretical possibility” because it was “thought quite impossible for just one protein to go away on cue,” recalls Tim. “But that’s what I saw, with my own eyes.”

This protein turned out to control the cells’ growth, duplication and division, acting like a “go” signal. Tim later discovered cyclins in clams, starfish, frogs and humans. For his work, Tim shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Lee Hartwell and Paul Nurse.

In 2006, Tim was knighted and also received the Royal Medal from the British Royal Society. He retired a few years later, to the surprise of many, but explained his decision: “It’s a good time to stop, while you’re ahead.” Currently residing in Japan, where his wife is the provost of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), Tim continues to work on The Problems Book, an accompaniment to the Molecular Biology of the Cell textbook by Alberts et al.