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.