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Discovery Lecture sheds light on properties of motion

Feb. 6, 2014, 9:54 AM

Ron Vale, Ph.D., co-discoverer of the molecular “motor” kinesin, spent the first 10 minutes of his Flexner Discovery Lecture last week talking not about science, but about science communication.

Ron Vale, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, put his research in motion at the recent Flexner Discovery Lecture. (photo by Steve Green)

In particular, he talked about a science education website, which he established at the University of California, San Francisco, where he is professor and vice chair of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology.

“We have to take on new creative efforts to make oral scientific communication as broadly available as possible,” said Vale, a Lasker award winner, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Thanks in part to new media, from online courses to open-source software, “we’re in a terrifically exciting time now for science education,” he said. “Aspects of science education are really as creative and interesting as the research that we do in the lab.”

The rest of his lecture was about motion, which Vale described as “a fundamental property of life,” and which he demonstrated non-verbally — throughout the talk, his arms and legs and slender frame were nearly always moving.

As a graduate student working at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., in the mid-1980s, Vale helped discover kinesin, a class of proteins that move along cytoskeletal filaments to transport large cellular “cargo,” among other functions.

For the last several years, he and his colleagues have been investigating a much larger, more complex and more mysterious molecular machine called dynein.

Just in the past few months, his team has obtained several intriguing “snapshots” of the protein, and the “super complex” it forms with two other proteins, dynactin and bicaudal D, which enables it to travel in an “ultra-processive” manner.

“This is the most processive motor … that has ever been observed,” he said.

Dynein navigates down the same microtubules as kinesin, but because the “track” is polarized, they travel in opposite directions. “No collisions?” someone asked at the conclusion of the lecture. “Oh, there may be lots of collisions,” Vale answered. “The cell is a very violent place.”

Nevertheless, he said, molecular motors like dynein are part of “a beautiful navigation system” for delivering “all kinds of cellular molecules to the right place.”

Vale’s lecture was sponsored by the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology as a CDB Distinguished Speaker Seminar.

For a complete schedule of the Flexner Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to


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