| Roger D. Kornberg (top) and his father Arthur
Stockholm, Oct. 4: American Roger D. Kornberg, whose father won a Nobel prize nearly 50 years ago, was awarded the prize in chemistry today for showing how cells copy genes, a process essential to how cells develop and to life itself.
Disturbances in that process, known as transcription, are involved in many human illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation.
Kornberg’s prize came 47 years after he watched his father, Arthur, being awarded the medicine Nobel in Stockholm for gene work. His father had shared the prize with Severo Ochoa.
The Swedish Academy of Sciences, which gives the 10 million crowns ($1.36 million) award, said Kornberg’s research into how ribonucleic acid, RNA, moves genetic information around the body was of “fundamental medical importance”.
Kornberg had spent the previous two days travelling from Europe to his home in California when he was called at 2.30 am and told of the award.
“So when the telephone first rang I was completely bewildered,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’m still shaking. I hope I will be able to calm down shortly.”
The website for Kornberg’s Stanford University laboratory shows a photo of him at 12 in Stockholm, where he saw his father being given the 1959 Nobel for medicine for studies of how genetic information is ferried from one DNA molecule to another.
Kornberg described watching his father win as “wonderful”, but said it did not influence his choice of science as a career.
“I was there and it was another world, another life, another time,” he said. “I had an interest in science from as far back as I can remember.”
Kornberg is the lone winner of the prize, and the fifth American to win a Nobel this year. So far, all the prizes — medicine, physics and chemistry — have gone to Americans.
The academy said the process of gene copying, or genetic transcription, was central to life.
“(It) is a key mechanism to the biological machinery. If it does not work, we die,” Per Ahlberg, a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry at the academy, said.
Since the transfer of information helps explain how a cell becomes a nerve or liver or muscle cell, understanding transcription is also crucial for the development of various therapeutic applications of stem cells, the academy said.
Kornberg used a process called X-ray crystallography — where molecules in a chemical reaction are “frozen” into crystals and photographed using X-rays — to capture transcription in action and in incredible detail.
These images showed the complex structure RNA uses to make this translation. Scientists have found that knowing the physical structures of and in cells, as well as on bacteria and viruses, helped them design drugs to treat diseases.
The Kornbergs are the sixth set of fathers-and-sons to win Nobel prizes, while one father and daughter — Pierre Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie, won the Nobel prize in physics and chemistry, respectively. Irene’s mother, the famous Marie Curie, who was married to Pierre, also won two Nobel prizes for chemistry and physics.
Danish scientist Niels Bohr won the Nobel prize in physics in 1922 and his son, Aage, shared the physics award with American Ben Mottelson in 1974.
Written with agency reports