US scientist wins Nobel, 47 years after his father

Roger Kornberg of the United States won the Nobel Chemistry Prize on Wednesday for work on a key process of life called genetic transcription, building on Nobel prizewinning discoveries by his own father.

Kornberg (59) received the distinction ”for his fundamental studies concerning how the information stored in the genes is copied, and then transferred to those parts of the cells that produce proteins,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation.

Understanding the transcription process is vital for coaxing stem cells into different kinds of specific cells — the dream that, one day, scientists will be able to grow transplant tissue in a lab.

Kornberg’s award wraps up a clean sweep for the United States in the Nobel science prizes, with four other Americans taking home the medicine and physics awards earlier this week.

Now a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, in California, Kornberg was only 12 when he came to Stockholm to see his father, Arthur Kornberg, honoured with the 1959 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Kornberg senior, now in his late 80s, was honoured for advancing understanding on how genetic information is transferred from a mother cell to its daughters.

The younger Kornberg’s achievement was to portray how the DNA is copied by an enzyme and the copy is then stored in the outer part of the cell.

Like computer software, this copy is then used as an instruction to cellular machinery to make proteins, the molecules that comprise and repair the body’s tissues.

The 2006 prize is for ”eukaryotic transcription” — eukaryotes are a biological term for a vast category of organisms whose cells have a well-defined nucleus. Human beings come into this category.

Kornberg was the first to create a molecular picture of how transcription works in eukaryotes, thus providing a snapshot of one of the cornerstone processes of life.

”The truly revolutionary aspect of the picture Kornberg has created is that it captures the process of transcription in full flow,” the Nobel jury said.

The pictures are so detailed that separate atoms can be distinguished, showing the cogs that drive the transcription process and regulate it.

”Transcription is necessary for all life,” the jury said.

Problems with the transcription process are linked to many human illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation.

”If transcription stops, genetic information is no longer transferred into different parts of the body. Since these are no longer renewed, the organism dies within a few days,” the jury said.

Kornberg and his father are the sixth father-and-son to win Nobel prizes.

The 2006 laureate will receive a gold medal and a cheque for 10-million Swedish kronor ($1,37-million) at the formal prize ceremony held, as tradition dictates, on December 10, the anniversary of the death in 1896 of the prize’s creator Alfred Nobel.

On Monday, the Medicine Prize went to US research duo Andrew Fire and Craig Mello for their discovery of how to silence malfunctioning genes, a breakthrough which could lead to an era of new therapies to reverse crippling diseases.

And on Tuesday the Nobel Physics Prize went to US space scientists John Mather and George Smoot for a pioneering space mission which supports the ”Big Bang” theory about the origins of the Universe.

The Economics Prize is scheduled for October 9, while the date for the Literature Prize has not been announced yet though it could fall on October 12.

The Peace Prize will wrap up the 2006 Nobel season on October 13. – Sapa-AFP

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Pia Ohlin
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