By Scott Lyon
Princeton bioengineer Clifford Brangwynne won the 2023 Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences in recognition of his contributions to the study of living cells. Brangwynne’s research has changed how scientists understand cellular organization, leading to foundational insights about cell functions and suggesting new ways to treat diseases such as cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s disease.
Brangwynne, the June K. Wu ’92 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, shares the $3 million prize with Anthony Hyman of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. The Breakthrough Prize cited the researchers’ discovery of “a fundamental mechanism of cellular organization mediated by phase separation of proteins and RNA into membraneless liquid droplets.”
Before Brangwynne and Hyman’s 2009 paper, scientists believed the primary structures that organize molecular machinery within cells were like soap bubbles, with a distinct membrane separating inside from out. The researchers showed that many structures within cells are more like raindrops, where molecules condense from their surroundings and band together due to the physics of phase separation. Over the past decade, this paradigm, sometimes called liquid-liquid phase separation, has been shown to drive many basic cellular functions, including protein aggregation, gene expression, the immune response to viruses, cell growth and cancer, and a host of other processes.