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Membrane Biophysics

2014 Kenneth S. Cole Award: David Julius

David Julius is the winner of the 2014 Kenneth S. Cole Award from the Membrane Biophysics Subgroup. He joins 43 past recipients of this prestigious award in the Membrane Biophysics field.

Julius received his Bachelors in Life Sciences from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Doctorate in Biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

Julius’s work has provided a molecular explanation for how we sense temperature and is seminal in igniting the widespread interest for TRP channels in the field of membrane biophysics as temperature sensors in the physiological setting. His group identified a cDNA encoding the capsaicin receptor (VR1 or TRPV1) from rat dorsal root ganglia, where it is expressed by a specific subset of primary sensory neurons, providing a definitive molecular explanation for the selective nature of capsaicin’s actions on neurons of the pain pathway. In this landmark study, Julius’s group also made the discovery that the cloned TRPV1 channel can be activated by noxious heat with a thermal activation threshold (~43 degrees C) matching that of sensory nerve fibers or isolated sensory neurons. Thus, Julius postulated that TRPV1 contributes to the process by which somatosensory neurons detect changes in ambient temperature, providing the first molecular insights into how thermal stimuli are detected and how psychophysical pain thresholds are determined at the biophysical and molecular level. In another influential study, Julius' group has used menthol, a cooling agent, to elucidate a molecular mechanism of cold sensation. These studies led to the identification of a cold receptor (CMR1 or TRPM8), which turned out to be a close molecular cousin of the capsaicin/heat receptor, TRPV1. Together, these discoveries support a general model of thermosensation in which TRP channels serve as detectors of ambient temperature spanning a wide physiological range. This prediction has been validated in TRPM8 knockout mice, which show profound deficits in cold sensation at both cellular and behavioral levels. Julius has continued to exploit natural products as tools for understanding pain mechanisms as illustrated by his identification of the TRPA1 channel as the target through which wasabi and other mustard oils mediate pain, irritation, and neurogenic inflammation. Finally, in recent studies Julius' group has addressed how pit vipers and rattlesnakes, for example, are able to sense the infrared signals from warmed blooded prey and how these signals originate from TRPA1 channels as infrared receptors. Unlike the mammalian TRPA1 channel, which is insensitive to heat, TRPA1 in pit vipers has evolved an exquisite sensitivity to infrared light. In synthesis, Julius' contribution to membrane biophysics stems from his discovery, and biophysical/physiological characterization of the greater family of sensory ion channels, thus bringing to life long postulated membrane proteins and giving rise to a new field of research.

Julius has been an invaluable mentor to several junior and senior scientists who have trained with him. Finally, he has a strong record of service to the scientific community including being an Editorial Board Member of Neuron and PNAS, and Editor of Annual Review of Physiology.

The annual dinner to celebrate the 2014 award will be held at the Thirsty Bear Restaurant and Brewery in San Francisco on Saturday, February 15, following the subgroup symposium. Payment is required in advance of the meeting. Visit the subgroup page for more information.

Henry M. Colecraft, Membrane Biophysics Chair