Leading Scientist Named New Chair of Cell Biology at Yale

Yale University announced today the appointment of James E. Rothman, one of the world’s leading cell biologists, as chair of Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Cell Biology.  Additionally, Rothman will launch the Center for High-Throughput Cell Biology at Yale’s West Campus, formerly the site of Bayer Pharmaceuticals.

Rothman will come to Yale from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he is now a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, the Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical Biology and director of the Columbia Genome Center. Under Rothman’s leadership Yale’s Department of Cell Biology will be significantly expanded, and will be co-located at the West Campus along with its present location at the main campus of the School of Medicine.

At the new Yale Center for High-Throughput Cell Biology, Rothman will lead multidisciplinary teams of scientists to develop tools and techniques to rapidly decipher the cellular functions of the 25,000 known protein-coding genes in the human genome, providing fresh insights into disease and identifying new molecular targets for therapy.

For more than two decades, Rothman has performed seminal research on membrane trafficking, the transport of molecules inside the cell in tiny spherical sacs known as vesicles, which fuse with membranes to deliver their molecular cargo to intracellular organelles or to the extracellular space. This latter process, known as exocytosis, is basic to life and occurs in organisms as diverse as yeast and humans; in humans, exocytosis underlies physiological functions ranging from the secretion of insulin to the regulation of the brain neurotransmitters responsible for movement, perception, memory and mood. Rothman discovered the molecular mechanisms and machinery responsible for these and related processes using a “cell-free” approach, in which he isolated intracellular components crucial to molecular transport in a laboratory dish, sidestepping the complexity of working with complete cells.

“Jim Rothman is one of the most brilliant researchers of our time,” says Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine. “When he started his career, a number of successful biochemists were recognizing the importance of studying molecular processes in cell-free systems, but no one imagined that you could study vesicle trafficking in a cell-free system. Jim had the courage to try and the skills to succeed, and this bold approach revolutionized the field. Jim continues to bring this combination of brilliance and intensity to his research, and now also to the continued development of an exceptional cell biology department.”

“We are excited to welcome Jim Rothman to Yale and look forward to his collaboration with other faculty around the University in defining the future of cell biology,” said Andrew D. Hamilton, Provost, Yale University.

Rothman has many personal and scientific connections to Yale. He graduated summa cum laude from Yale College in 1971 with a degree in physics, and his research interests were inspired by George E. Palade, M.D., a Nobel Prize-winning cell biologist, who founded Yale’s Department of Cell Biology and led the department for its first decade.

“My life’s work on membrane trafficking in cells was inspired by the discoveries of George Palade, who founded Yale’s cell biology department in 1973, and indeed founded the field of cell biology as we know it today,” Rothman says. “It is a privilege to lead the department he founded as we redefine molecular cell biology and catalyze its impact on medicine, and a unique pleasure to return to Yale.”

After graduating from Yale, Rothman earned a Ph.D. in biological chemistry from Harvard Medical School in 1976. He then spent two years as a postdoctoral associate in the laboratory of Harvey F. Lodish, a preeminent biochemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1978, Rothman moved to the Department of Biochemistry at Stanford School of Medicine as an assistant professor. He continued his research at Princeton University from 1988 until 1991, when he became the founding chair of the Department of Cellular Biochemistry and Biophysics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and vice chair of the Sloan-Kettering Institute.

In 1993, Rothman discovered a complex of vesicle membrane proteins which he implicated in membrane fusion and formulated the highly influential “SNARE hypothesis.” This hypothesis posits that distinctive, complementary protein complexes known as SNARES, expressed on both vesicles and target membranes, first ensure that different classes of vesicles bind to appropriate membranes and then unleash the biochemical changes leading to fusion of vesicles with those membranes and the delivery of the vesicles’ cargo to its proper destination.

He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science, and a foreign associate of the European Molecular Biology Association. He is the winner of numerous prizes in biomedicine, including Columbia’s Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize and the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research

Rothman succeeds Ira S. Mellman, a distinguished cell biologist and immunologist who was chair and Sterling Professor of Cell Biology at the School of Medicine until 2007, when he joined the biotechnology company Genentech as vice president for oncology research. Since Mellman’s departure, James D. Jamieson, M.D., professor of cell biology and director of the medical school’s M.D./Ph.D. Program, has served as interim chair of the Department of Cell Biology.