U.S. Researcher Wins Chemistry Nobel for Genetics Work

Aalok Mehta
for National Geographic News
October 4, 2006
U.S. biologist Roger D. Kornberg has won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for helping to unravel how cells make proteins using genetic information. The prize is worth 10 million Swedish kronor (1.4 million U.S. dollars).

Kornberg, of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, was able to capture freeze-frame images of the genetic process known as transcription in unprecedented detail.

A number of illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, and certain kinds of inflammation, have been linked to disturbances in the process.

A more thorough understanding of transcription may also be key to unlocking the medical potential of stem cells.

"Transcription is necessary for all life. This makes the detailed description of the mechanism that Roger Kornberg provides exactly the kind of 'most important chemical discovery' referred to by Alfred Nobel in his will," wrote the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the chemistry Nobel, in a news release.

Kornberg follows in the footsteps of his father, who also won a Nobel for genetics work. Arthur Kornberg shared the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Severo Ochoa for showing how genetic information is transferred from one DNA molecule to another.

Caught in the Act

Kornberg carried out his transcription studies in a category of organisms called eukaryotes.

Eukaryotes, which include humans as well as most plants, animals, and yeast, differ from bacteria by having a cell nucleus that holds their DNA.

Most of the genes in DNA are recipes for making proteins, molecules that are vital to every aspect of life. (Get a complete genetics overview.)

But the machinery for making proteins is located outside the nucleus. So eukaryotic cells first copy a gene onto a molecule known as messenger RNA, which is then shuttled outside.

This copying process, in which double-stranded DNA unwinds and serves as a template for messenger RNA, is called transcription.

In 2001 Kornberg was able to capture a detailed image of the process as it was happening.

"The truly revolutionary aspect of the picture Kornberg has created is that it captures the process of transcription in full flow," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences wrote. "In an ingenious manner Kornberg has managed to freeze the construction process of RNA halfway through."

Lars Thelander, who was on the selection committee for the chemistry Nobel, said "this allows us for the first time to see the chemical details of transcription. They were unknown before."

The more detailed understanding may help scientists unravel and treat certain diseases caused by disruptions in the transcription process.

The knowledge may also help scientists unlock the potential of stem cells, which control transcription precisely to transform into any cell type in the body.

"This is, of course, basic science," Thelander said. "But it has many implications for human diseases, antibiotics, stem cells, and so on.

"I foresee lots of significance and use for this knowledge." (Get more information from the Nobel Foundation.)

U.S. Winners

The five winners of the Nobel prizes announced so far this year have all been U.S. researchers.

On Monday biologists Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello were awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of RNA interference, a way cells control the expression of specific genes.

Their findings, which could eventually provide new treatments for diseases such as cancer and AIDS, showed that messenger RNA can sometimes be destroyed before it is be used to make proteins.

Yesterday cosmologists John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for their research helping to solidify the big bang theory of the origin of the universe.

The Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded on October 13.

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