Brangwynne wins the Breakthrough Prize for revolutionary view of living cells

Written by
Scott Lyon, Chemical and Biological Engineering
Sept. 23, 2022

Princeton bioengineer Clifford Brangwynne has won the 2023 Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences, recognizing his contributions to the study of living cells.

Brangwynne’s research has changed how scientists understand cellular organization by linking biology with materials science and engineering, leading to foundational insights about cell functions and suggesting new ways to treat diseases such as cancer, ALS and Alzheimer’s.

Brangwynne, the June K. Wu ’92 Professor in Engineering, shares the $3 million prize with Anthony Hyman of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. The Breakthrough Prize cited their discovery of “a fundamental mechanism of cellular organization mediated by phase separation of proteins and RNA into membraneless liquid droplets.” Brangwynne was a postdoctoral researcher in Hyman’s lab from 2007 to 2010, when they made their critical finding.

“Cliff Brangwynne has illuminated some of the most basic principles of life’s machinery,” said Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “In this discovery, he has not only created a new lens through which to investigate the molecular processes of life and death, he has also reconciled disparate branches of knowledge and generated entirely new fields of study. 

“This bold vision represents exactly the kind of thinking we celebrate and encourage at Princeton, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to see his achievements honored in this way.”

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation has also awarded Princeton’s Jeff Thompson a 2023 New Horizons in Physics Prize, for early-career researchers who have made a substantial impact in the field. Thompson, a quantum computing expert, is one of six recipients to share this year’s citation for “the development of optical tweezers to realize control of individual atoms.” Thompson joined the Princeton faculty in 2016 and is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Read the full story on his award.

Ana Caraiani of the Class of 2007, who came back as a Veblen Research Instructor and NSF Postdoctoral Fellow from 2013 to 2016, received one of the foundation’s New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes. Maggie Miller, a 2020 Ph.D. graduate, received a Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize, an award named for a former professor of mathematics at Princeton that is awarded to women mathematicians who have recently completed their doctorate degrees and produced important results.