Wickner honored for
contributions to cell biology

Published April 03 2017

Bill Wickner

“We tackled protein translocation and membrane fusion as reductionists, piggybacking on the genetics work of Beckwith, Yoh Wada, Emr, Stevens and Schekman, developing rapid quantitative assays with purified organelles and then reconstituting and exploring the biology with purified proteins and lipids. I’m deeply grateful to my brilliant lab mates and to my revered teachers, Gene Kennedy and Arthur Kornberg.”


This year’s recipient of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s William C. Rose Award is Bill Wickner, a professor of biochemistry and cell biology at Dartmouth Medical School.

Established more than three decades ago and named after a former president of the American Society of Biological Chemists, ASBMB’s precursor, the Rose award recognizes outstanding contributions to biochemical and molecular biological research and a demonstrated commitment to the training of younger scientists.

“Wickner’s biochemical studies are responsible for our first understanding of how proteins are transported across membranes in bacteria. His subsequent work has illuminated the processes of membrane fusion and inheritance, two fundamental problems in eukaryotic cell biology. He is a consummate biochemist who deserves to be recognized for his outstanding research contributions and extremely dedicated mentorship,” said Suzanne Pfeffer of Stanford University in her nomination letter.

Wickner’s scientific career, which spans over 40 years and has produced more than 200 publications, began with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Yale University in 1967 and then an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. At Harvard, Wickner worked with “a pioneer in lipid biosynthesis, Eugene Kennedy,” wrote Pfeffer.

Wickner conducted his postdoctoral work with yet another scientific legend, Arthur Kornberg, at Stanford University, where he co-discovered the role of an RNA primer in DNA replication along with Randy Schekman.

Wickner’s next stop was a professorship at the University of California, Los Angeles, where his group made history by being the “first to reconstitute bacterial protein translocation into proteoliposomes using purified components. His lab, and that of Shoji Mizushima, showed that SecY, SecE and SecG form a basic unit of the translocon that can translocate a preprotein when supplemented with SecA and ATP. Importantly, Wickner also showed that protein translocation requires a membrane potential in bacterial cells,” wrote Pfeffer.

In 1993, Wickner moved to Dartmouth Medical School, where he served as chairman of the biochemistry department. His group researched mechanisms responsible for membrane fusion, this time in eukaryotic cells. According to Pfeffer, “one of Wickner’s most important discoveries was that the so-called NSF (NEM-sensitive transport factor) protein functions to disassemble SNARE proteins after fusion to permit SNARE protein reutilization, rather than catalyzing membrane fusion per se. He carried out highly detailed biochemical analyses of the individual steps underlying the fusion of yeast vacuoles in vitro and in cells.”

Wickner has won numerous honors and accolades, including election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1996, an American Cancer Society Faculty Research Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Merit Award from the National Institutes of Health. He also was elected to be a foreign associate of the European Molecular Biology Organization and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Embodying the true spirit of scientific education and collaboration and that of the William C. Rose Award, Wickner has been “an outstanding and prolific mentor” to a long list of budding and now successful scientists, which includes “46 postdoctoral fellows, 17 graduate students, and 13 technicians,” Pfeffer said.

On his lab webpage, Wickner describes himself as “an over-aged postdoc” and a “lab rat” who simply loves “talking and doing science.”

Wickner will receive his award during the 2017 ASBMB Annual Meeting in Chicago, where he will deliver an award lecture. The presentation will take place at 8:45 a.m. April 23 in room W183ab in McCormick Place.

Sapeck Agrawal Sapeck Agrawal is a science writer.