Erin Schuman, of American nationality, is awarded the 2020 Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine for her work on the requirement for local protein synthesis in synaptic plasticity.
Born in 1963, Erin Schuman obtained her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Princeton University. She carried out her postdoctoral work in Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University. In 1993 she joined the Biology faculty at the California Institute of Technology. In 1997 she was also appointed as an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In 2009 she was recruited as a founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where she heads the Department of Synaptic Plasticity.
In 2014 Erin Schuman was elected to the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and in 2017 she was elected to the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. Throughout her career, she has been honoured with awards and recognition, including the Pew Biomedical Scholar Award, the Beckman Young Investigator Award, and mostly recently the Salpeter Lifetime Achievement award from the Society for Neuroscience.
Local solutions to protein management in the brain
Brain cells (“neurons”), with their complicated branches (dendrites and axons), are the most structurally complex cells in the body. The strength of communication between brain cells is determined and regulated by proteins that inhabit their connections, called synapses. Most “synapses” are located far away from the cell body and nucleus. Given the distance of synapses from the cell body, how do they get the proteins they need to function at the right place at the right time and in the correct amount? Erin Schuman has provided key evidence that many proteins are made locally near synapses and can be used to enhance synaptic communication, a cellular correlate of memory.
Erin Schuman and her team discovered that protein synthesis occurs in neuronal processes. To study mRNA translation in vivo, her lab developed techniques for monitoring newly synthesized proteins. In 1996, in the course of exploring how growth factors enhance brain communication, Schuman made the seminal discovery that local protein synthesis within dendrites is required for this form of plasticity. She obtained some of the first direct evidence that protein synthesis occurs locally in dendrites. Her team discovered thousands of mRNAs localized to neuronal axons and dendrites. In addition, Schuman (together with her colleagues Tirrell and Dieterich) developed new methods to tag, purify, identify and visualize newly synthesized proteins in cells using non-canonical amino acids and click chemistry. Erin Schuman’s work illustrates how protein synthesis machines and mechanisms have been specialized to serve the special needs of neurons. Her studies aim to understand brain plasticity, a crucial aspect of the learning and memory processes, as well as for sensory, motor and psychological rehabilitation after brain damage.