2004 Roche Medal: Trevor Lithgow

Trevor LithgowTrevor is an Associate Professor in the Russell Grimwade School of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Melbourne. The award also honours recent colleagues in the Lithgow lab including Lena Burri, Peter Walsh, Kip Gabriel, Ian Gentle, Joanne Hulett, Dejan Bursac, Nickie Chan, Michael Dagley and Katherine Vascotto. Their work is supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council. Trevor completed his PhD in the Biochemistry Department at La Trobe University, supervised by Nick Hoogenraad and Peter Höj and was awarded a Progen Fellowship by the ASBMB. After a year at home, writing his thesis and contemplating his future, he went to the University of Basel to work with Gottfried Schatz on protein import into mitochondria. One of the themes in the Schatz lab at the time was to understand how mitochondrial targeting sequences were decoded at the mitochondrial surface and Trevor took up working with Tina Junne on the problem. The Schatz lab used yeast as a model organism for studying the protein import pathway. The two-and-a-half years in Basel proved an excellent time for learning the magic of yeast genetics and cell biology, but an utter failure in attempts to learn Swiss-German.

On returning to Australia, Trevor was awarded an AMRAD Postdoctoral Biomedical Research Award and one of the ten Human Frontiers Science Program 10th Anniversary Awards for outstanding postdoctoral performance. Still using yeast as the model organism of choice, work in Trevor's lab has been focussed on membrane dynamics: how membranes are built, grow, divide and fuse. With occasional forays into the endomembrane system, including work on SNAREs with Tom Söllner and Jim Rothman and membrane-embedded molecular chaperones with Jeff Brodsky, the membrane system best-loved by his lab is still the mitochondrial outer membrane.

With a grant from the Human Frontiers Science Program, studies were initiated on the structure and function of the TOM complex, the translocase in the outer membrane responsible for mitochondrial protein import. Recent collaborations with Paul Gooley, Terry Mulhern and Susan Buchanan are now bearing fruit. In each case, structural studies have married well with yeast genetics and biochemical assays to provide inroads into the function of the components of the TOM complex.

After attempts to re-educate himself in bioinformatics, Trevor wisely chose instead to work with real bioinformaticians, Kay Hofmann and Vladimir Likic, and most recent projects in the lab are informed by genomic-scale sequence analyses. This latest work has included finding troublesome members of several protein families, work towards understanding the evolution of the TOM complex and the very recent discovery of a bacterial-related protein insertion machinery in the mitochondrial outer membrane. This SAM complex, as it has come to be known, is essential for the assembly of new membrane components including those mediating mitochondrial division, fusion and cell death.