Posted on

Controlling the Cell Cycle: A Nobel Laureate’s Lecture

Eric Sha | March 30, 2023

CDKs and the Cell Cycle

From the moment we are first conceived, we are continually changing and growing. For this growth to occur, we must produce new cells through cell division in the cell cycle.  It is thus crucial that this process is regulated to prevent uncontrolled cell division and cancer.  One of the most important cell cycle regulators is cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs), a family of enzymes that can regulate cell cycle progression. Sir Paul Nurse, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, received the Nobel Prize for discovering Cdc2 (a CDK in yeast) and CDK1 (Cdc2’s homolog in humans), which serve as key players in cell cycle regulation.

A picture taken at the lecture by Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse, PhD, (fourth from left).  From left: Jackie Corbin, PhD, Kathy Gould, PhD, Sharron Francis, PhD, Nancy Carrasco, MD, and Roger Colbran, PhD. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Discovery Lecture by Sir Paul Nurse

On February 9, Vanderbilt University Medical Center hosted a lecture by Sir Paul Nurse as part of their Discovery Lecture Series. The Discovery Lecture series is Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s most prestigious lecture series that features some of the nation’s most prominent scientists, including many previous Nobel winners. Dr. Nurse’s talk, titled “Controlling the Eukaryotic Cell Cycle”, explored his research on CDKs as well as the future direction of research on these enzymes.  

Phases of the Cell Cycle (Simon Caulton, CC BY-SA 3.0, <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

The CDK family plays crucial roles in the progression of cell division and proliferation. Cell division is split into four phases, G1 (cell growth), S (DNA replication), G2 (preparation for cell division), and M (mitosis, or cell division). CDKs work by adding a phosphate group to different sites (specifically the amino acids serine and threonine), which tells the cell whether or not to progress with cell division. Dr. Nurse challenges the traditional textbook model, where there are a range of different CDKs that appear and disappear at different points in the cell cycle to control cell division.  Dr. Nurse’s lab found that yeast cells being regulated by a single CDK (cdc2) can drive the proliferation of healthy cells despite deletion of other CDKs previously thought to be paramount in the cell cycle. Different events in the cell cycle were shown to be dependent on the level of this single CDK, and CDK levels alone can drive cell cycle progression back and forth. 

Towards the end of his lecture, Nurse mentioned that there are still several problems to be solved before we truly get a full picture of what is occurring in CDKs. These problems include quantifying how much CDK is necessary for a certain process being “on” or “off”, size of cells regulating CDK activation, and how the dynamic regulatory behavior for CDKs works.

CDKs are a staple of cell and molecular biology, and these small proteins have provided us with tremendous insight into how our cells divide. Sir Paul Nurse is currently chancellor of the University of Bristol and director of the Francis Crick Institute in London, where he continues to run his lab and study how cells grow and divide.

Works Cited

Caulton, S. (n.d.). File:cell cycle simple.png – Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from

Communication, V. U. M. C. N. and. (2023, February 16). Sir Paul Nurse discovery lecture. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from