Vale’s research has focused on molecular motor proteins, nature’s nano-scale machines that convert chemical energy into directed movement. Vale began by asking how materials are transported in neurons, which are highly elongated cells that extend up to a meter in humans. Using squid as a model system, he developed a test-tube system to study this cellular transport process. This work led to the discovery of a new motility-producing molecule, which was named “kinesin”. Vale’s laboratory then uncovered the molecular choreography that enables this 1/millionth of an inch machine to drive movement. Collectively, Vale’s work has informed, at a broad level, how living organisms generate motion.
Dr. Vale’s discovery of kinesin and molecular motors transformed the field of cell biology, placing a spotlight on the study of motor proteins. His research has illuminated the fundamental principles that underlie biological motility, an essential attribute of living organisms. The discovery of kinesin led to new tools for studying protein machines more broadly, sparked studies that connected motor proteins to innumerable cellular processes, and contributed to the realization that motility defects underlie various diseases of the nervous system, heart, and other organ systems.