Sharing the 2013 prize are James Rothman, professor and chairman in the department of cell biology at Yale University, Randy Schekman, professor in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, and Thomas Südhof, professor of molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University.
The award honours their work into how molecules, such as neurotransmitters and hormones, are transported around cells, as well as the principles that govern how they are delivered at the right place and right time.
Professor Schekman’s work, which began in the 1970s, discovered a set of genes that control different aspects of the cell’s transport system.
Efforts by Professor Rothman in the 1980s and 1990s later showed how the miniature bubble-like “vesticles” - packages which transport the molecules - fuse with their targets to allow the cargo to be transmitted to a precise location.
Meanwhile Professor Südhof revealed how, in the case of nerve cells, signals instruct the packages to release their cargo at the right time.
According to the committee, the discoveries have had “a major impact on our understanding of how cargo is delivered with timing and precision within and outside the cell”, with the same transport systems operating in organisms as different as yeast and humans.
The discoveries are also important for their insight into disease, given that disturbances in the transport system have harmful effects and contribute to conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes, and immunological disorders.
Professor Schekman, who is also an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is editor-in-chief of the open-access journal eLife, created by the institute in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust and Max Planck Society.
The award, announced on 7 October, is the first of this year’s Nobel Prizes, with the remaining laureates to be named over the coming week.
Both Professor Rotham and Professor Schekman were predicted to win the prestigious prize by Thomson Reuters citation analyst David Pendlebury in 2009.
Mr Pendlebury makes the predictions on the basis of their large number of citations and their responsibility for founding a new field of research likely to be recognised by the Nobel Committee.