After Monday’s announcement of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, followed yesterday by the announcement of the Prize in Physics, the Oscars of the sciences continue today with the awarding of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Roger Kornberg for his work on elucidating the molecular basis of transcription in eukaryotes. This decision is interesting for several reasons. First of all, Kornberg received the full Nobel Prize, not shared with any others, something that is fairly rare and further indicates the importance and breadth of the work he has done. Interestingly, Kornberg’s father, Arthur Kornberg also received the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1959 for his work on the related area of DNA synthesis.
Although Roger Kornberg has been researching transcription since the 1970s, his major breakthroughs began only recently, with the publication of a series of protein crystal structures, starting in 2001. These structures, of the eukaryotic transcription complex in a variety of states, allowed scientists for the first time to actually see what is happening at the molecular level when a eukaryotic cell transcribes its genetic information from DNA into RNA. (For more information, see the press release or the summary of Kornberg’s work provided by the Nobel Foundation.) As with the Prize in Physiology/Medicine this year, these findings are relatively recent on the Nobel time scale.
Protein crystallography and structural biology in general involve a mix of biology, chemistry, and even physics. However, 2006 marks the fourth time in five years that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded for a biology-based project. As a structural biologist myself, I think this is exciting and indicative of the directions that both biology and chemistry are moving in. I wonder what the hardcore chemists think about it, though.