Terra Sigillata

Best as I can tell, our resident MD/PhD student, Jake Young at Pure Pedantry, was first to post on this morning’s announcement.

The Nobel Prize website has a very nice press release on why the discovery of RNA interference is so central to our understanding of biology and is likely to result in therapeutic drugs in the very near future:

This year’s Nobel Laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information. Our genome operates by sending instructions for the manufacture of proteins from DNA in the nucleus of the cell to the protein synthesizing machinery in the cytoplasm. These instructions are conveyed by messenger RNA (mRNA). In 1998, the American scientists Andrew Fire and Craig Mello published their discovery of a mechanism that can degrade mRNA from a specific gene. This mechanism, RNA interference, is activated when RNA molecules occur as double-stranded pairs in the cell. Double-stranded RNA activates biochemical machinery which degrades those mRNA molecules that carry a genetic code identical to that of the double-stranded RNA. When such mRNA molecules disappear, the corresponding gene is silenced and no protein of the encoded type is made.

RNA interference occurs in plants, animals, and humans. It is of great importance for the regulation of gene expression, participates in defense against viral infections, and keeps jumping genes under control. RNA interference is already being widely used in basic science as a method to study the function of genes and it may lead to novel therapies in the future.

Jake does a lovely job explaining further why this discovery is so important.

I might only add that this award emphasizes the need that all types of biological study in all types of organisms is worthy of support. You can be certain that this discovery would not have resulted from one of the double-digit million-dollar “big science” initiatives that have become all the rage here in the US. Moreover, the push to do “meaningful” or “applied” research might have left the work of Fire and Mello relegated to some intellectual curiosity undeserving of support in these leaner funding times.

Second, while I am not privy to the inner workings of the RNAi field, I am a bit surprised not to see either Tom Tuschl or Greg Hannon listed as the third winner. It may well be that the restriction on three winners per prize made it difficult for the committee to pick Tuschl or Hannon, while it is clear that Fire and Mello published first on the RNAi process in Nature in 1998.

I’m sure there will be plenty of discussion today on this latter point.

Regardless, hearty congratulations to Drs. Fire and Mello and a round of applause to all scientists working on basic processes in model (non-mammalian) organisms.

Comments

  1. #1 Bill Hooker
    October 2, 2006

    Turns out my boss used to play volleyball with Mello — so he’s young, and I have it on good authority that he’s a mensch. Our tribe could sure do with some quality leaders.

  2. #2 HI
    October 2, 2006

    My understanding is that Tuschl et al. was the first to show RNAi in a cell-free system, but that is after Fire and Mello discovered that double-stranded RNA does the trick. Hannon has done a lot of good works, but I think he joined rather late.

    Other people who made significant contributions are Jorgensen who found a weird phenomenon in plant first, and Ambrose and Ruvkun who found micro RNAs as Alex Palazzo mentioned, and Baulcombe who found that the RNA is processed into small pieces.

    But I think the choice of Fire and Mello was the right one.

  3. #3 PhysioProf
    October 2, 2006

    “I might only add that this award emphasizes the need that all types of biological study in all types of organisms is worthy of support. You can be certain that this discovery would not have resulted from one of the double-digit million-dollar “big science” initiatives that have become all the rage here in the US. Moreover, the push to do “meaningful” or “applied” research might have left the work of Fire and Mello relegated to some intellectual curiosity undeserving of support in these leaner funding times.”

    Indeed. Thank you for pointing this out.

    “I have it on good authority that he’s a mensch.”

    I heard him give a seminar last semester and he came across as a “regular guy”. Another Nobelist who I did meet and spend some time with at a banquet is Peter Agre. He brought the Nobel medal to the banquet and passed it around. He showed us a photo of his neighborhood “Liquor Barn” store in Baltimore that put a “Congratulations Dr. Agre” on its sign.

  4. #4 Abel Pharmboy
    October 3, 2006

    Dr Hooker, glad to hear such nice things about Dr Mello. Indeed, we should celebrate the victories of the good folks in our biz.

    PhysioProf, I’m actually surprised that more scientists, bloggers, or media didn’t push the fact that these discoveries, central to life, came from the study of lower organisms. We need to do a better job of promoting why all kinds of scientific research are important and can yield biological tools and future therapies from the most seemingly unlikely sources. Tom Cech, current HHMI president and 1989 Nobelist in Chemistry, is one who is fond of saying that his seminal ribozyme work in Tetrahymena would not likely be funded today.

    Funny also that you should mention Peter Agre (2003-Chemistry for aquaporins) as being such a lovely guy. I had a chance to meet him at a symposium last week and yesterday’s Wall Street Journal just reprinted his exercise routine from an interview last May from their “What’s Your Workout?” feature. An amazingly down-to-earth and very physically-fit guy (wilderness canoeing, annual 90km X-C ski race in Sweden) who somehow kept it all in perspective both before and after winning the Nobel. The Liquor Barn story is totally in keeping with his down-home Midwestern character.

  5. #5 Mouth of the Yellow River
    October 4, 2006

    Ni Hao! Kannichi Wa!

    It’s time to end this individual cult worship called The Nobel Prize, a farce, ultimate in hypocrisy, rigged politically behind closed doors, and antiquated like the so-called general “peer review” system for choosing who gets supported and listened to.

    There are thousands of discoveries that deserve the Nobel Prize. Any one individual nowadays got there on the backs of others.

    I am looking for the time when more awardees have the courage shown by mathematician Gregory Perlmann (Poincare Conjecture guy) to spurn such awards before it corrupts them.

    This year’s award was a prime example of the culture going ga-ga over the latest technical fad before fundamental insight into a new biological principle and its mechanism is documented much less its practical application to human diseases.

    This year’s theme may be no more than an empirical cell culture (Petri dish) tool. Such is par for the political “technocracy” now called “science” that once was a concept- and wisdom-based discipline.

    With a great majority of practitioners from beginning students to the Nobel Prize Committee spending a great majority of their efforts and intellect on political strategy for publication, funding, maintenance of position and generally what is politically-correct, it is not surprisingly that most of what is called “top science” today will be a lucky, empirical and potentially isolated finding like dropping double-stranded RNA into a Petri dish.

    MOTYR

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