Dr. Günter Blobel, 81, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist who extolled the beauty of cellular structures and baroque architecture alike, and who used the money he won to mend war-ravaged buildings in his native Germany, died Feb. 18 at a hospital in Manhattan. The cause was cancer.
Blobel spent decades studying the movement of proteins, biologically indispensable molecules that transmit signals, defend against viruses or bacteria, transport atoms or molecules, and catalyze chemical reactions.
While healthy cells are abuzz with their production and movement, newly formed proteins always seem to know their destination, Blobel and his colleagues observed in the early 1970s. The string-shaped molecules were apparently imbued with a secret code that ensured they reached the correct location within or outside the cell.
Almost on a lark, he envisioned a process whose elegance and simplicity would have delighted the architects he had idolized since he was a boy, passing through the streets of Dresden, days before the city was leveled by British and U.S. bombers in World War II.
Proteins, he speculated, are encoded with the molecular equivalent of a ZIP code or luggage tag, a sequence of amino acids that help a particular protein reach its destination within the cell.
It was the kind of hypothesis that alternately delighted and infuriated his colleagues, some of whom felt that Blobel, a man who threw himself into imaginative speculations throughout his career, strayed too far from established fact. It was also entirely correct.
Blobel was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1999. His research resulted in major medical advances, including scientists' ability to produce mass quantities of proteins such as insulin, and the realization that several genetic disorders are triggered by signal-sequence errors.
Blobel donated all $960,000 of his Nobel winnings to Friends of Dresden, a group he founded in 1995 to help renovate and rebuild some of the structures Dresden lost during the war. The funds were used to construct a synagogue destroyed during the Kristallnacht attack on German Jews.
Günter Blobel was born on May 21, 1936, in Waltersdorf, a Silesian town then located in Germany and now in Poland.