U.S. Researcher Wins Chemistry Nobel for Genetics Work

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.

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