Stanford scientist wins Nobel for revealing RNA in action

Chemistry prize goes to man whose father won 1959 Nobel for medicine

October 05, 2006|By Thomas H. Maugh II and Denise Gellene | Thomas H. Maugh II and Denise Gellene,Los Angeles Times

For 12-year-old Roger Kornberg, it was just an annoying commotion in the middle of the night.

He had been roused from sleep with the news that his father Arthur, a Stanford University professor, had just won the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Yesterday, it was his turn to wake his father in the middle of the night. Kornberg, like his father a faculty member of the Stanford University School of Medicine, won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

"I was simply stunned; there are no other words," said the 59-year-old scientist of the 2:30 a.m. call from Sweden informing him that he was the sole recipient of the $1.37 million prize. "This is not something you plan on, not something that motivates you."

Kornberg father and son represent that rare confluence of genes and environment that endows a particular family with scientific insight and creativity.

"I've been waiting for this event for a long time," said his father, now 88. "I'm grateful that I was still around when it happened."

In the 105 years that the prizes have been awarded, the pair represents the sixth time that a father and son have both won Nobel Prizes.

Although the two Kornbergs won their prizes in different categories, their work was related.

Dr. Arthur Kornberg shared the 1959 prize with Severo Ochoa of New York University for their work on how genetic information is transferred from one strand of DNA to another during cellular replication.

Roger Kornberg won for his work illuminating the process in which genetic information in cells is translated into the proteins that control cellular structure and function.

Kornberg "was the first to create an actual picture of this process at the molecular level," reads the Nobel citation. That allowed scientists to study each atom involved in the complex process and to deduce precisely how it is carried out.

The award was "fantastically well-deserved," said Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Arthur Kornberg was born in Brooklyn in 1918, a son of Polish immigrants. His father ran a sewing machine for 30 years until his health failed, when he opened a small hardware store in the city.

Kornberg worked at the National Institutes of Health and Washington University in St. Louis before being recruited by Stanford in 1959 to organize the department of biochemistry.

Even when Arthur Kornberg's children were young, it was clear that they were different. Arthur's wife, Sylvy Ruth Levy, was also a noted biochemist who had assisted Arthur in his prize-winning research.

"The Kornbergs were legendary way back then," said Berg, who grew up in the same Stanford neighborhood. "They read The Cat in the Hat, then Biochemistry 101."

Roger Kornberg said his interest in science developed long before his father's prize. But it is clear that the fascination with the natural world was fostered at home.

For more than 30 years, Kornberg has been studying a process known as transcription, in which genetic information contained in DNA in a cell's nucleus is translated into messenger RNA. The messenger RNA then carries the information into the main body of the cell, where it is used as a template by protein-making machinery.

Transcription is crucial not only in keeping each cell alive, but also in determining which of the 30,000 genes in every human cell will be used and thus whether a cell will become a muscle cell, a nerve fiber or any of the myriad other types required by a complex organism.

The transcription process is carried out by an enzyme called RNA polymerase.

When Kornberg began his work, Berg said, most researchers thought the idea of obtaining a picture of RNA polymerase was foolish at best. Kornberg agreed.

"It was obviously impossible," he said. "The means did not exist. It was not available in a form suitable for study. Even if it could be put in that form, the amount available was woefully inadequate for that purpose. And the methods for such study were equally inadequate."

But Kornberg persisted, gradually assembling the RNA polymerase crystals needed for the study as advances in computer processing and X-ray crystallography imaging were made by others.

For 10 years, he had no publishable results -- which might have destroyed his career were it not for the early promise he had shown.

But in 2001, he and his colleagues published the first molecular snapshot of RNA polymerase in action.

"In an ingenious manner, Kornberg has managed to freeze the construction process of RNA halfway through," the Nobel committee said. Capturing the enzyme in action was "truly revolutionary," they said.

Thomas H. Maugh II and Denise Gellene write for the Los Angeles Times.

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