Recurring Decimals…..

Everything here is irrelevant

And the Nobel Prize in Chemistry…..

with 10 comments

….goes to Roger Kornberg of Stanford University for "for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription". 

(Note: A slightly expanded version of this post is now up at

Those who are familiar with the field of Molecular Biology might hesitate (as I did early this morning) for a second and think – ‘hasn’t this guy already won a Nobel ‘? But that would be the father, Arthur Kornberg (also at Stanford), who won the Physiology and Medicine award in 1959 for research in a very connected filed, discovering the how the basic information molecules of life, DNA and RNA1 are synthesized and assembled. The Nobel Prize press release mentions

Forty-seven years ago, the then twelve-year-old Roger Kornberg came to Stockholm to see his father, Arthur Kornberg, receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1959)

Talk about pressure, huh ! Other then the Braggs back in 1915, I can’t remember of any other case where father and son both have received Nobel Prizes.

The mention of William and Lawrence Bragg is appropriate in this context since their research, almost a century ago, on the technique of elucidating molecular structures by bombarding crystals with X-ray lights has enabled Roger Kornberg to investigate the mechanism of how genetic information is decoded (of course, the field of X-ray crystallography has become incredibly sophisticated since 1915!). As most people know, long strands of molecules called DNA store the genetic information of life. But the actual physical work-horses in the cell are proteins. The flow of information from DNA to proteins is through intermediates called messenger RNAs (the Central Dogma of Life). Kornberg’s contribution,  in very simple terms,  was to obtain very detailed ‘snapshots’ of the molecular processes involved in the creation of the RNA molecules from DNA. This has shed light on how this mechanism, called ‘transcription’, is regulated in cells.

It is interesting to note that the relevant scientific papers based on which the Academy awarded this prize were published in 2001. This is a relatively quick turnover for the Nobel committee, which usually waits many years for the research to be validated and its impact to be appropriately judged before rewarding it. For example, although Watson and Crick described the double helix structure of DNA in 1953 – they got the Nobel only in 1962. Additonally, it is rare (and even rarer in modern times) for a single person to be awarded the full prize. Both are indicative of the importance of this work.

Also interesting to note that both the Physiology/Medicine and the Chemistry Awards for this year are related to the regulation of genetic information in cells.

UPDATE: I feel very stupid now for having said this:  "I can’t remember of any other case where father and son both have received Nobel Prizes.". Should have done a better research. Two other cases, that of Neils Bohr/Aage Bohr and JJ Thompson/George Thompson should have jumped to my mind – since I read about them back in my high-school days. Especially the Thompson’s – since father got the Nobel for discovering electrons while son got it for showing the wave nature of electrons ! And additionally, as pointed out by Ruchira in the comments, the Curies made it pretty much a family tradition ! Full list, along with other fun facts can be found here. Bad form from a trivia geek like me to forget these facts. 

1: DNA = deoxyribose nulceic acid; RNA = Ribose nucleic acid


Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 4, 2006 at 4:41 am

Posted in Science

10 Responses

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  1. For example, although Watson and Crick described the double helix structure of DNA in 1953 – they got the Nobel only in 1962

    Indeed. A better example is Kammerling-Onnes (sp?). Did his work on super-conductivity in 1912, got the prize in the nineties together with the high-temperature crowd.

    Corporate Serf

    October 4, 2006 at 5:20 pm

  2. No other father and son team except for the Braggs.

    How about father, mother and daughter? Marie and Pierre Curies’ daughter Irene Joliot Curie won the Nobel with her husband Frederic Joliot. That made for a quartet of Nobelists in one family!

    Ruchira Paul

    October 4, 2006 at 11:30 pm

  3. I thought it was pretty cool.


    October 5, 2006 at 7:26 am

  4. @ Corporate Serf: Thanks for the example – that sounds like a real long wait !! W&C’s case was nothing in comparison.

    @ Ruchira: My bad – should have remembered the other father-son cases and about Irene Joliot. Thanks. Have updated.

    @ M: dunno if you were talking about the research or the father-son thing – but yes, both are cool !


    October 5, 2006 at 7:41 am

  5. Hey, no need to feel stupid. It is a nice series of posts on the Nobel.

    While I knew about the Bragg son and father, I did not know about Thompson & Thompson and the Bohr duo! Thanks for the link to the Nobel page. I had been thinking of posting about the latest winners but now I think I’ll write one with a new angle – about Nobels in the family.

    Ruchira Paul

    October 5, 2006 at 11:43 pm

  6. Aage Bohr… Hmm…

    I think there is a consensus that that nobel was a bit of politicking. Bohr (real junior) had done some work on nuclear structure, (shell models? anyone know?) but a nobel?

    Certainly his father and uncle did far better work. Harald Bohr, the brother of Neils Bohr: mathematician (known for almost periodic functions) and football player (used to play club level football in Europe.)

    Corporate Serf

    October 6, 2006 at 12:23 am

  7. :)) Actually both.


    October 6, 2006 at 9:20 am

  8. @ruchira: Nobels in a family would be an interesting take. This PBS interview jointly with Arthur and Roger Kornberg might help.

    @Corporate Serf: Thanks for the info. Yes there is always some politicking in the Nobel awards. More so for Economics and Peace – but science hasnt been spared.

    @M: Thought so.


    October 6, 2006 at 2:38 pm

  9. I actually thought the nobels were a great selection this year….for such current work.

    I remember when I started grad school, Kornberg’s first structure was out, and it created such a buzz. It was one of the few papers I read then that I still (kinda) remember.


    October 7, 2006 at 6:08 pm

  10. @ Sunil: Yes I thought so too. But you probably know – not all Chemists are happy about the prize going to Kornberg, who they consider to be a biologists !


    October 8, 2006 at 8:50 pm

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