Childhood & Early Years
Martin Rodbell was born on December 1, 1925 in Baltimore, Maryland into a Jewish family. His father, Milton Rodbell, was a grocer. His mother’s name was Shirley (née Abrams) Rodbell. He had one brother and one sister.
Rodbell started his education at a public school. Later he shifted to Baltimore City College, a magnet high school, which admitted selected students from the city and put more stress on languages than on science subjects.
As a result, he soon developed interest in languages, especially French. At the same time, his friendship with two neighborhood boys awakened in him a great interest in chemistry and mathematics.
Finally, after passing out from school in 1943, he joined John Hopkins University with chemistry and French existential literature. Soon he began to feel that being a Jew, fighting Hitler should be his highest priority. So in 1944, he joined the U.S. Navy as a radio operator.
His Corp was mainly engaged with the Japanese in the South Pacific. During this period, he had the opportunity to interact with the locals, living under trying conditions, in Philippines, Korea and China. This, in his own words, helped him grow a ‘healthy respect for the human condition’.
In 1946, after being released from military service, he rejoined John Hopkins University. Although his father wanted him to study medicine he was more interested in French. While he was going through this dilemma, he was caught by the enthusiasm of Professor Bentley Glass, who advised him to enter the field of biochemistry.
Therefore, he decided to major in biology; but because he had not studied advanced chemistry he had to spend one more year taking this course. Finally he received his bachelor’s degree in biology in 1949.
Subsequently, he joined the University of Washington, Seattle and there he began his doctoral work on the biosynthesis of lecithin in the rat liver and received his PhD in 1954.
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In 1954, soon after receiving his PhD, Rodbell joined University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a postdoctoral fellow. Here he worked on biosynthesis of the antibiotic chloramphenicol under Herbert E. Carter.
His fellowship period ended in 1956. By now, Rodbell had realized that he was not cut out for an academic career and research was his strong point.
Therefore, he accepted the position of research biochemist at National Heart Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. It was a part of the National Institutes of Health and Rodbell remained with the organization until his retirement in 1994.
Here he began to work on lipoproteins on the surface of chylomicrons. Using a newly developed ‘fingerprinting’ technique he detected at least five different proteins. Much later it was proved that these proteins had major roles in diseases involving lipoproteins.
In 1960, he decided to restart his original research on cell biology. Fortunately, he received a fellowship, which enabled him to join the University of Brussels. There he learned many new techniques. Among them, he found an ultrathin x-ray film process to record localization of tritium-labeled molecules inside the cells most interesting.
Later he shifted to Leiden, Netherland, where he joined the laboratory of Dr. Peter Gaillard, a pioneer in the techniques of cell culturing. Here he obtained training in the use of cultured heart cells for determining the uptake of tritium-labeled chylomicrons.
On returning to the US, Rodbell joined the Nutrition and Endocrinology laboratory of NIH’s Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases. Here he began to work on fat cells and sowed that these cells are released when collagenase digest the tissue matrix.
Later he also developed a method by which these cells can be separated and purified without altering the cell structure. Subsequently in 1963, he was visited by Bernardo Houssay, who ignited in him an interest in how hormones work on isolated cells. Rodbell immediately started working on it.
By 1964, he published the results of his experiments in an article titled, ‘The Metabolism of Isolated Fat Cells’. It was highly appreciated by the scientific community and was hailed as one of the most important papers in endocrinology in 1960s and 1970s.
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In 1965, Earl W. Sutherland gave a talk on ‘second messenger’ theory of hormone activity. Sutherland had hypothesized that a hormone, the ‘first messenger’, does not enter a cell. Rather it works on the surface, triggering a mechanism, he called ‘second messenger’, within the cell. It is the second messenger, which executes the command initiated by the hormone.
Rodbell, like many other biochemists, was intrigued by it and his interest turned to cyclic AMP paradigm. Meanwhile in 1967, he travelled to Geneva to take the place of Albert E. Renold at the Institut de Biochimie Clinique while Renold took some time off.
At Geneva, he worked on the effects of hormones on ion and amino acid translocations in fat cell ghosts. Subsequently, he returned to the US in 1968 and began working with rat liver membrane cells on signal transduction. He soon found similarity between computers and biological organisms.
He believed that just like computers, a biological organism has a cell receptor, which receives information from outside the cell; a cell transducer, which processes this information across the cell membrane; and the amplifier that intensifies these signals to initiate reactions within the cell or to transmit information to other cells.
While the functions of the cell receptor and the amplifier were known, nothing much was known about the cell transducer. In 1970, Rodbell discovered that the principal component of the transducer was guanosine triphosphate (GTP).
Subsequently, he demonstrated that GTP stimulated the guanine nucleotide protein (later called G-protein), present in the cell membrane. He also said that activated G-protein was the "second messenger" process that Earl W. Sutherland had theorized.
In 1985, Rodbell was transferred to the NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, where he joined as the Scientific Director. He stayed there until his retirement 1994.
Meanwhile 1991, he also functioned as the Adjunct Professor of Cell Biology at Duke University, remaining there until 1998. For a brief period, he was also the Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1950, Rodbell married Barbara Charlotte Ledermann. She was a friend of Ann Frank’s (the famous diarist) sister Margot. Although her parents and sister were gassed to death at Auschwitz, Charlotte was able to obtain an Aryan I Card through her contacts in the Dutch Underground and survive. The couple had four children - Paul, Suzanne, Andrew, and Phillip.
Towards the end of his life Rodbell began to suffer from cardiovascular disease. Yet, he was highly active. On 16 November, 1998 he delivered the inaugural NIEHS Rodbell Lecture. The next day he was admitted to the hospital and died on December 7, 1998 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.