Lily Jan, PhD, and Yuh Nung Jan, PhD, have contributed to many areas of neuroscience. Their first major contribution was the discovery that molecules known as peptides can act as neurotransmitters (chemicals that transfer messages from one neuron to another). In 1982, they published a landmark paper in the Journal of Physiology that described how a peptide called luteinizing-hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH) acts as a neurotransmitter in the sympathetic ganglia, which are clusters of nerve cells located in the network of nerves that carry messages from the brain throughout the body, by influencing not only those nerve cells near the release site for this peptide but also other nerve cells within the sympathetic ganglia. That paper opened up a major new field of study. Scientists have since discovered dozens of peptide neurotransmitters, whose properties and function are being actively studied for their role in health and disease.
The Jans have also been pioneering leaders in the study of potassium channels, which are pores on the membranes of nerve cells that serve as gatekeepers for charged atoms known as potassium ions as they flow in and out of the cells. They discovered that potassium channel abnormalities were responsible for the abnormal limb movements of a mutant strain of fruit flies known as “Shaker,” and, in 1987, reported (in another landmark paper) the cloning of the Shaker gene. This event—the first successful cloning of a gene for a potassium ion channel—opened up yet another new field of research. In the ensuing 25 years, dozens of human genes encoding various potassium ion channels have been cloned, and mutations in these genes have been linked to a variety of diseases, including heart rhythm problems, epilepsy, and hypertension. The Jans have continued to contribute to many important advances in this field.
In addition to their prolific work on potassium channels, the Jans have also been leaders in the field of neural development. Their research has led to many important discoveries regarding how different types of neurons develop their specific form and structure during embryonic development. They have helped explain, for example, how neurons use certain proteins to acquire their identity; how the division of a single neural progenitor cell can generate two dissimilar “daughter” cells, thus ensuring cellular diversity in the mature brain; and how neurons develop dendrites, the branched extension of a neuron that receive and integrate sensory inputs and signals from nearby neurons.