Terra Sigillata

Chemistry Nobel Prize for Biology?

My colleague, Coturnix, just raised the question of whether the awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Roger D. Kornberg of Stanford University is really an award for biology.

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!


  1. #1 coturnix
    October 4, 2006

    It may not have been clear from what I wrote, but I actually like the way the divisions between the sciences are blurring. It’s a shame, though, that there is no Nobel for Biology as so much good stuff in ecology, evolution, physiology and behavior cannot possibly be shoehorned into either Medicine or Chemistry.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    October 4, 2006

    … And how about psychology? Pavlov got his Nobel in… medicine!

  3. #3 coturnix
    October 4, 2006

    Well, in a previous post I noted that the last Nobel I can really relate to was awarded in 1973 (Lorenz, Tinbergen, von Frisch).

  4. #4 Pinko Punko
    October 4, 2006

    Many of the nucleic acid-related prizes have been chemistry. This is farily consistent. And very exiting.

  5. #5 wologyuan
    October 5, 2006

    it is really exiting to the winners to receive the Nobel prizes with the scope of these subjects(chemistry ,Physiology or Medicine ,physice,science and so on ),but the scientists who are engaged in the other subjects that don’t fall the scope of the Nobel prizes still gain great accomplishment ,and they also should be respected .

  6. #6 PiGuy
    October 6, 2006

    wologyuan raises a good point. It is interesting how different branches of science are so symbiotic. Consider how crystalography, a new physics technique at the time, contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Probably impossible otherwise. I used to tell students (was once a HS math and scince teacher) how intertwined science, math, and technology are and how they all feed off of each other. As a physics teacher, I typically meant ‘physics’ when I said ‘science’.

    But now that I work modeling and simulation in the chem-bio defense industry, it is clear there are no distinct boundaries at all: aerosolize chemical agents or biologic pathogens, mix them with water or other interferents to produce different signatures, irradiate them with a UV laser so that they floresce in a different region of the EM spectrum to be detected by a complex opto-electronic system, follow up with assays PCR techniques, and run a battery of statistics that would make most heads spin. The entire three-headed monster of MathSciTech comes at you as a nearly inseparable package. You’re either in all the way or not very far at all.

  7. #7 Surya Kanta Das
    December 25, 2007

    This is a list of Biological Award by Nobel academy.

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