American Wins Chemistry Nobel; His Father Won in 1959
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STOCKHOLM, Sweden — American Roger Kornberg, whose father won a Nobel Prize a half-century ago, was awarded the prize in chemistry yesterday for his studies of how cells take information from genes to produce proteins.
The work is important for medicine because disturbances in that process are involved in illnesses like cancer, heart disease, and various kinds of inflammation. And learning more about the process is key to using stem cells to treat disease.
A professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Mr. Kornberg, 59, said medical benefits from his research have taken root.
“There are … already many therapies, many drugs that are in development in trials or already available, and there will be many more,” he said. “Significant benefits to human health are already forthcoming. I think there will be many, many more.”
Mr. Kornberg’s award, following the Nobels for medicine and physics earlier this week, completes the first American sweep of the Nobel science prizes since 1983. Americans have won or shared in all the chemistry Nobels since 1992.The last time the chemistry Nobel was given to just one person was in 1999.
Mr. Kornberg’s father, Arthur, shared the 1959 Nobel medicine prize with Severo Ochoa for studies of how genetic information is transferred from one DNA molecule to another.
The younger Mr. Kornberg said he remembered traveling to Stockholm with his father for the Nobel Prize award ceremonies.
“I have always been an admirer of his work and that of many others preceding me.I view them as truly giants of the last 50 years. It’s hard to count myself among them,” he said.
“Something so remarkable as this can never be expected, even though I was aware of the possibility. I couldn’t conceivably have imagined that it would become reality.”
The Kornbergs are the sixth father and son to both win Nobel Prizes.One father and daughter — Pierre Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie — won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, respectively. Marie Curie — Irene’s mother and Pierre’s wife — won two Nobel prizes, for chemistry and physics.
Roger Kornberg’s prize-winning work produced a detailed picture of what scientists call transcription in eukaryotes, the group of organisms that includes humans and other mammals, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation.
Mr. Kornberg shed light on how information is taken from genes and converted to molecules called messenger RNA. RNA is short for ribonucleic acid. These molecules shuttle the information to the cells’ protein-making machinery. Proteins, in turn, serve as building blocks and workhorses of cells, vital to structure and functions.
Since 2000, Mr. Kornberg has produced actual pictures of messenger RNA molecules being created, a process that resembles building a chain link by link. The images are so detailed that individual atoms can be distinguished.
“In an ingenious manner Kornberg has managed to freeze the construction process of RNA half-way through,” the Nobel committee said.That let him capture the process of transcription in full flow, which is “truly revolutionary,” the committee said.
“Kornberg realized …that to get to the chemical details of the [process] was fundamental,” a member of the Nobel Committee in Chemistry, Anders Liljas, said. “Because if you don’t really see it on a molecular, atomic level, then you don’t really understand it.”
Mr. Kornberg’s breakthrough was published in 2001, remarkably recent for honoring by Nobel prize standards.But it followed a decade of researching yeast cells — whose similarity to human cells that Mr. Kornberg called “perfectly astounding” — in search of a method to shed light on the transcription process.
In those 10 years, Mr. Kornberg was allowed to continue his research without publishing a single major finding — a rare luxury in the world of science where funders often want instant results, the chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, Hakan Wennerstrom, said.
“I guess it helps to have a father who is a Nobel laureate,” Mr. Wennerstrom said. “But he also had previous publications of the highest level.”
The director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Md., Jeremy Berg, which has supported Mr. Kornberg’s work for more than 20 years, called Mr. Kornberg’s prize “fantastically well-deserved.”
The question of how information from genes is turned into RNA is fundamental, Mr. Berg said, and Mr. Kornberg “started working on it when it seemed somewhere between ambitious and crazy” to figure out the detailed structure and functioning of the cell’s machinery for doing the job, he said.
“The last five years have been really breathtaking in terms of the details of the structures that he’s been producing and what they’re revealing about the mechanism, as well as laying the groundwork for future studies of how gene regulation works,” Mr. Berg said.