Günter Blobel was a talented teacher who could communicate complex ideas with clarity.
In October 1999 Laura Maioglio, a New York restaurant owner, took a call for her husband, Günter Blobel. “Dr Blobel is sleeping,’’ she said. It was, after all, five o’clock in the morning. But the caller was insistent: “We have to speak to him. Wake him up.’’
When Blobel picked up the phone he thought it was one of his colleagues playing a joke. However, he realised that none of them was particularly good at imitating a Swedish accent, and he soon recognised the voice of Nils Ringertz of the Nobel committee.
His Nobel prize in physiology or medicine was vindication of three decades of research that had been questioned by many of his peers. He had discovered that proteins in cells bear what are in effect luggage tags, or postcodes — built-in signals to ensure that proteins “go to the right address”, as he put it, to regulate tissues, organs and body chemistry. These signal peptides, as they are known — effectively strings of amino acids — tell a cell where and how to move proteins around.
Blobel’s work had a massive impact on the understanding of cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, leukaemia, schizophrenia, HIV/Aids and other conditions caused by deficiencies in the immune system, including some cancers, as well as hereditary conditions caused by errors in these signals.
“Günter’s work in many ways initiated the modern era of what we call molecular cell biology,’’ said Richard Klausner, the former director of the US National Cancer Institute. Pharmaceutical companies have drawn on Blobel’s work to turn cultured cells into factories for producing protein-based drugs such as insulin.
Using cell parts taken from animals, Blobel, working with David D Sabatini of New York University, found the signal they were looking for in a part of the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum, a system of membranes. Each protein, bearing its “postcode”, is transported across membranes within the cell. We now know that a cell works by sorting its proteins and directing them to the right place. Without this mechanism cells could not function and life would not exist.
Blobel’s ideas took time to be accepted. At a press conference after the announcement of his Nobel prize he looked back at the vicissitudes of his research, “such as when your grants and papers are rejected because some stupid reviewer rejected them for dogmatic adherence to old ideas’’. At that moment hundreds of students and colleagues in the auditorium cheered.
He was also a talented teacher who could communicate complex ideas with clarity. As he remarked: “I’m always telling my students that if they can’t explain what they’re doing to their grandparents they probably don’t understand it themselves.”
Günter Blobel was born in the remote Silesian village of Waltersdorf, which was in Germany at the time, but is now in western Poland and is known as Niegoslawice. He was one of eight children born to Margaret Blobel and her husband, Bruno, who was a vet. He described his childhood, until 1945 at least, as “a perfect 19th-century idyll. There were hour-long rides on Sundays in horse-drawn sleighs to my grandparents’ farm. The house was a magnificent 18th-century manor.”
However, as the Second World War approached its climax, Blobel’s childhood paradise was shattered. In January 1945, with the Red Army only a few miles away, his 14-year-old brother drove the family to relatives west of Dresden. As they travelled through the city, its beauty made an indelible impression. In Blobel’s Nobel acceptance speech half a century later he recalled “the many palaces, happily decorated with cherubs and other symbols of the baroque era . Its many spires and the cupola of the Lutheran Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, were a magnificent sight.”
Three days later they witnessed the firestorm as Dresden was pounded by British bombers. “The bombing was so bright that you could read the newspaper by the red sky, even though we were kilometres away . . . It was a very sad and unforgettable day for me.”
The children were split up between relatives, but Blobel’s sister Ruth was killed on a train during an air raid. The family then reassembled and set up home in Freiberg in Saxony in what became East Germany. Blobel enjoyed choral concerts given in the town’s great gothic cathedral and did well at school, even though he was not the most dedicated student.
He later refused to join a communist youth organisation, was condemned as “a member of the capitalist classes” and barred from attending university. Blobel took a train to Frankfurt, which was still possible in the days before the erection of the Berlin Wall, and studied in West Germany, graduating in medicine from the University of Tübingen. After two years as a junior doctor he decided “that I was much more fascinated by the unsolved problems of medicine than by practising it”.
His brother Hans, who had a Fulbright scholarship to study microbiology in the US, helped to secure a graduate fellowship for Günter, who sailed on a German freighter to Montreal and made his way to Madison, where he studied at the University of Wisconsin. He earned a doctorate in oncology in 1967 and joined the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York, becoming a full professor in 1976.
In the same year he married Maioglio, who had studied art history before taking over her family’s restaurant, Barbetta, in Manhattan’s theatre district. Maioglio was described in one restaurant review as “a James Bond stunner with non-stop legs and a Hamptons tan”. In his Nobel speech Blobel said: “She greatly encouraged me in my work and never complained about the many hours I spent in the laboratory.”
The memories of the beauty of old Dresden never left Blobel. In 1994 he established a foundation, Friends of Dresden, to help to restore the city and rebuild the Frauenkirche, which had been left in its bombed-out state as a war memorial. Five years later Blobel gave his $960,000 Nobel prize money to Dresden, in memory of his sister Ruth. He also helped to fund the rebuilding of a synagogue in the city.
As well as honouring Ruth’s memory, the gift to Dresden, Blobel declared, was also a gift to the people of Saxony, “who received us with open arms when we had to flee Silesia”. The reconstruction of the city’s great monuments was, he said, “a childhood dream come true”.
Günter Blobel, molecular biologist, was born on May 21, 1936. He died of cancer on February 18, 2018, aged 81