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Roger Kornberg Joins Father as Nobel Laureate

October 4, 2006 at 6:35 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: For the Kornbergs, it’s all in the genes. Today, Roger Kornberg of Stanford University won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for helping to unravel how cells made proteins using genetic information.

In 1959, his father, Arthur, won the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering how genetic information transfers from one DNA molecule to another. Both of them join us now.

Let me start with the man of the day, Roger Kornberg. First, congratulations to you.

ROGER KORNBERG, Winner, Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Could you explain to us in layman’s terms what you discovered and why it’s so important?

ROGER KORNBERG: I’ll be glad to do so. I think laypeople will all know that DNA contains the instructions for the development, for the construction and the maintenance of a living organism, but the DNA by itself contains nothing more than information. The DNA alone is silent.

The machinery that we have investigated for the past several decades gives the DNA information voice. It enables that information to become active and lead to the construction of the organism.

The purpose of our work was to discover, unravel the complexity, ultimately to visualize directly the machinery that reads out the genetic information. The central component of that machinery, referred to as RNA polymerase, is itself a giant molecule made up of 30,000 atoms.

In our work, we were able to determine the precise location of those 30,000 atoms and then go further, reveal, so obtain an additional picture of the molecule in action, as it reads out the information in DNA.

Researching the mechanics of life

Roger Kornberg
Nobel Prize, Chemistry
One day, people who take advantage of the information that we have gained and pursue it for specific, if you will, applied purposes, may do a variety of things, which would include development of specific medicines.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the Nobel Committee called this so-called genetic transcription "central to life." So if you can see how life works through this, can you also see how things go wrong and illness occurs? Is that the idea?

ROGER KORNBERG: That's true, and it's true in a variety of ways. In some cases, the machinery is perfectly normal, but it makes mistakes, and we are able to better understand how those mistakes are made and how they're corrected. That's actually a subject of our ongoing research at this moment.

In other cases, the machinery itself may be defective. That's true in cases of mutation that may lead to inborn errors or ultimately put a predisposition to various diseases.

JEFFREY BROWN: So your work can be used to create medicines for various diseases? What would the potential applications be?

ROGER KORNBERG: One day, people who take advantage of the information that we have gained and pursue it for specific, if you will, applied purposes, may do a variety of things, which would include development of specific medicines. It could include genetic testing to reveal defects that are known to be of significance. It can have many additional applications that we could discuss, if time would permit.

Dinner table talk

Arthur Kornberg
Nobel Prize, Medicine (1959)
I took my children to the lab on weekends. And they did trivial things in the laboratory. And in Roger's case, it was a fascination that's persisted throughout his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, well, let me bring in your father, Arthur Kornberg. We saw in the news summary a clip of you saying that you were, quote, "in awe of your son's work." I wonder, first, are you taking any credit for any of it?

ARTHUR KORNBERG, Winner, Nobel Prize in Medicine: Oh, no, except genetically. No, I've been in awe of Roger's work for a long time, because he's reduced the very complicated, biologic event to chemistry, to molecules and even atoms. And, ultimately, our goal in all of life science is to understand things in chemical terms.

So this is a language that is universal. There are no dialects. Chemistry is what matters. And I say this coming from a training in medicine on through the use of enzymes and metabolism.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was this language the stuff of your household? I mean, I think people wonder how this happens. Was this what you talked about at the dinner table?

ARTHUR KORNBERG: I would think occasionally, not in any overt way. But certainly my late wife, Sylvy, Roger's mother, was a chemist, and it was natural for us to use this kind of language, although not in any forced way. Roger can comment on that. His memory is better for that period of his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, go ahead, Roger. How do you explain the father-son Nobel connection here?

ROGER KORNBERG: Look, I would say, first of all, that I would echo what my father has just said. We had a normal family life, and I wouldn't suggest that it differed in an important way from anybody else's.

And as far as the connection is concerned, my father's already suggested one component, and that must be true. I doubtless harbor his genes, at least half of them, anyway.

And the other thing I would say is that there is, after all, a very small likelihood of even one Nobel Prize, a vanishingly small one of two, and one has to put it down to chance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Arthur, you told...

ROGER KORNBERG: Well, at least one of us got -- I should say, at least one of us got lucky.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you going to tell us which one?

ROGER KORNBERG: Well, I'll certainly raise my hand.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Arthur, you told a reporter today that, when Roger was 8 or 9, you and your wife asked him what he wanted for Christmas, and he said a week in the lab. So this must go pretty far back for him.

ARTHUR KORNBERG: Yes. I think it's still true that, if Rog were given a choice, he'd still want a week in the lab. I took my children to the lab on weekends. And they did trivial things in the laboratory. And in Roger's case, it was a fascination that's persisted throughout his life.

Yet I would say, I've never urged that they take a career in science, even though it's been a wonderful life for me, and they could see that I've enjoyed this life in science and have been very privileged, I must say.

Science and society

Roger Kornberg
Nobel Prize, Chemistry
I think that we so rarely have the opportunity nowadays, with the news that we all hear and read on a regular basis, to celebrate intellectual activity, to celebrate the rewards of study and achievement in science and in the university.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Roger, on that, finally, I heard you in a press conference today talk about how this award was a nice chance to celebrate the role of science in our society. What did you mean by that?

ROGER KORNBERG: I think that we so rarely have the opportunity nowadays, with the news that we all hear and read on a regular basis, to celebrate intellectual activity, to celebrate the rewards of study and achievement in science and in the university, in other aspects. I think it's not only important to do so, but it's more than that: a privilege, a joy to celebrate.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Roger Kornberg, congratulations to you. And to both of you, we wish you a happy family celebration tonight.

ROGER KORNBERG: Thank you.

ARTHUR KORNBERG: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.