The 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced this morning, with one half going to Andrew Fire and the other half to Craig Mello, both for the discovery of RNA interference (RNAi). The discovery of RNAi added a new layer to our understanding of how cells regulate gene expression and protect themselves from unwanted invaders, and, even more significantly, equipped biomedical scientists with a powerful new tool for studying protein function. Using RNAi, scientists are now able to dissect the genome of an organism, knocking down mRNA (and hopefully protein) expression, gene by gene, in a relatively quick and simple way. To do the analogous work before, scientists instead had to make dominant negative mutants (not always possible), produce knockout mice or other organisms (laborious and expensive), or use other genetic tricks.
Therefore, it shouldn't be a shock that Fire and Mello are receiving a Nobel Prize. What is surprising, however, is that they are receiving the Prize so soon. They published their original Nature paper on the topic in February 1998, only eight and a half years ago. In Nobel terms, that's a pretty short turnaround. This just goes to show how quickly RNAi has revolutionized the field of biomedical research. The impact of RNAi should continue to grow, as clinical applications may be in sight as well.