A surprise to some of us “youngsters,” Kornberg was recongized as the sole winner for elucidating the basic mechanism of eukaryotic transcription. Not a surprise that the winner was Kornberg, son of the Arthur Kornberg, who shared the 1959 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine with Severo Ochoa for elucidating the process of DNA replication; but, rather, that Kornberg was the sole winner. I’ll leave that to others in the transcription field to debate.
But back to Coturnix’s question. The real answer is that there is no Nobel prize for biology. Therefore, great advances in biology will fall under the prize for Physiology or Medicine, or under that for Chemistry. While we may normally think that chemistry prizes normally go to scientists who make major contributions to fundamental discoveries in bench chemistry, like Madame Curie’s discovery of the radioactive elements (radium and polonium) or Haber’s synthesis of ammonia from the elements, most modern Nobels in chemistry have gone to biological chemists.
Even the Nobel chemistry frontpage notes:
In more recent years, the Chemistry Nobel Laureates have increased our understanding of chemical processes and their molecular basis, and have also contributed to many of the technological advancements we enjoy today.
Hence, it makes sense that Kary Mullis and Michael Smith shared a Chemistry Nobel Prize for developing PCR and oligonucleotide-based mutagenesis for study of protein function, respectively. One might argue similarly that this year’s Nobel in Physiology or Medicine to Fire and Mello should have been given for Chemistry since RNA interference remains more of a chemical/biochemical tool while it therapeutic promise has yet to be realized. On the other hand, Fire and Mello’s discovery shed incredibly important light on cellular physiology.
So, it’s really a toss-up in my mind as to whether Kornberg’s seminal work on eukaryotic gene transcription should have been awarded for the Physiology side of Physiology or Medicine, or whether it is placed correctly under Chemistry.
Stepping back a bit, what these musings and discussions tell me is that the distinctions between disciplines is growing increasingly blurry, an observation that is already clearly apparent (so to speak). I am trained as a pharmacologist but use chemistry, molecular biology, physiology, and physics in my daily work.
All of science is becoming multidisciplinary: chemistry (drugs, biological chemistry) and physics (MRIs, radiotherapy) are essential to medicine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Nobel in Economics go to a guy like Princeton’s Uwe Reinhardt for his work in health economics and solving the medical cost crisis. From what I’ve seen of his work (a 29-page PDF for journalists preceding the 2004 US presidential election), he may even win a Nobel in Physiology or Medicine!