Nobel Prizes Rooted in Genetics

Times Staff Writers

For 12-year-old Roger Kornberg, it was just an annoying commotion in the middle of the night.

He had been roused from sleep with the news that his father, Arthur, a Stanford University professor, had just won the 1959 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.

Drowsy and not really comprehending the significance of the event, he fell back asleep. When he woke up hours later, his room was littered with cold coffee and stale rolls from the celebrations.


Wednesday, it was his turn to wake his father in the middle of the night.

Kornberg, like his father a faculty member of the Stanford University School of Medicine, won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“I was simply stunned, there are no other words,” said the 59-year-old scientist of the 2:30 a.m. call from Sweden informing him that he was the sole recipient of the $1.37-million prize. “This is not something you plan on, not something that motivates you.”

The father and son Kornbergs represent that rare confluence of genes and environment that endows a particular family with scientific insight and creativity.

“I’ve been waiting for this event for a long time,” said his father, now 88. “I’m grateful that I was still around when it happened.”

In the 105 years the prizes have been awarded, the pair represent the seventh time a parent and child have each won a Nobel.

Perhaps the rarest of all cases is that of the famed Curie family of France.

Marie Curie became the first female laureate in 1903, sharing the physics prize with her husband, Pierre. Their daughter Irene Joliot-Curie shared the 1935 chemistry prize with her husband, Frederic Joliot, making them the only family to have won husband-wife awards through two generations.

Although the Kornbergs won their prizes in different categories, their work was related.

Dr. Arthur Kornberg shared the 1959 prize with Severo Ochoa of New York University for their work on how genetic information is transferred from one strand of DNA to another during cellular replication.

Roger Kornberg won for his work illuminating the process in which genetic information in cells is translated into the proteins that control cellular structure and function.

Kornberg “was the first to create an actual picture of this process at the molecular level,” allowing scientists to study each atom involved in the complex process and to deduce precisely how it is carried out, the Nobel citation says.

The award was “fantastically well-deserved,” said Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Arthur Kornberg was born in Brooklyn in 1918, the son of Polish immigrants. His father ran a sewing machine for 30 years until his health failed, then opened a small hardware store in the city.

Kornberg worked at the National Institutes of Health and Washington University in St. Louis before being recruited by Stanford in 1959 to organize the department of biochemistry.

He was among the first in a wave of California scientists who began to push the state to the forefront of research. Caltech and UC Berkeley had long been research powerhouses, but starting in the 1950s, Stanford and other UC campuses began to rise.

It was a reflection of the enormous investment in science on the part of the state and private institutions, fueled in recent decades by the high-tech and biotechnology industries.

In recent years, nearly a quarter of the 82 science Nobel Prizes have been won by California researchers.

“It’s like football,” said Shirley Malcom, an expert on science education at the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. “If you have a winning team, you tend to attract strong players.”

Even when Roger was young, it was clear his family was different. His mother, Sylvy Ruth Levy, was also a noted biochemist who had assisted his father in his prizewinning research.

“The Kornbergs were legendary way back then,” said Berg, who grew up in the same neighborhood. “They read ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ then ‘Biochemistry 101.’ ”

Another of Arthur’s sons, Thomas, is a biochemist at UC San Francisco. A second, Kenneth, is an architect who designs science labs.

Roger Kornberg said his interest in science developed long before his father’s prize.

For more than 30 years, Kornberg has been studying a process known as transcription, in which genetic information contained in DNA in a cell’s nucleus is translated into messenger RNA. The messenger RNA then carries the information into the main body of the cell, where it is used as a template by protein-making machinery.

Transcription is crucial not only in keeping each cell alive, but in determining which of the 30,000 genes in every human cell will be used and thus whether a cell will become a muscle cell, a nerve fiber or any of the myriad other types required by a complex organism.

The transcription process is carried out by an enzyme called RNA polymerase.

When Kornberg began his work, Berg said, most researchers thought the idea of obtaining a picture of RNA polymerase was foolish at best. Kornberg agreed.

“It was obviously impossible,” he said. “The means did not exist. It was not available in a form suitable for study. Even if it could be put in that form, the amount available was woefully inadequate for that purpose. And the methods for such study were equally inadequate.”

But Kornberg persisted, gradually assembling the RNA polymerase crystals needed for the study as advances in computer processing and X-ray crystallography imaging were made by others.

For 10 years, he had no publishable results -- a lack that might have destroyed his career were it not for the early promise he had shown. But in 2001, he and his colleagues published the first molecular snapshot of RNA polymerase in action.

“In an ingenious manner, Kornberg has managed to freeze the construction process of RNA halfway through,” the Nobel committee said. Capturing the enzyme in action was “truly revolutionary,” they said.

Kornberg’s discovery has no immediate medical applications, but it is crucial to unlocking the medical promise of stem cells and to understanding diseases, such as cancer, that occur when the transcription process goes awry.

The Kornbergs are unusual among father-son laureates in that they won in different categories.

Four pairs have won in physics: J.J. Thomson (1906) and George Paget Thomson (1937); Niels Bohr (1922) and Aage N. Bohr (1975); Manne Siegbahn (1924) and Kai M. Siegbahn (1981); and William Henry Bragg and Lawrence Bragg, who shared the award in 1915.

Hans von Euler-Chelpin received the chemistry award in 1929, and his son Ulf received the medicine prize in 1970.

It remains to be seen whether the Kornbergs’ scientific tradition will be passed on to a third generation. Roger Kornberg said his three children have “interests in other things.”


Chemistry winner

Roger Kornberg

Age: 59

Home: Atherton, Calif.

Position: Professor of structural biology at Stanford University

Education: Bachelor of science, 1967, Harvard; doctorate in chemistry, 1972, Stanford

Family: His father, Arthur Kornberg, won the 1959 Nobel Prize for medicine

Quote: “I’ll probably remember more of my father’s ceremony than I will of mine, given everything that is going on around me.”


Times research by Scott Wilson

Los Angeles Times


California’s run


Of the 82 Nobel Prizes awarded to individuals since 1996 in physics, chemistry and medicine, researchers at California institutions have won 19.


Stanford Univ.= 5

UC Santa Barbara= 4

Calif. Institute of Technology=3


UC San Francisco=1

UC Berkeley=1

UC Irvine=1

Scripps Howard Research Inst.=1

Molecular Sciences Institute, Berkeley


Types of Prizes

Chemistry= 8




Source: Nobel Foundation