It's in the genes

2006 Nobel chemistry winner Roger Kornberg, could easily be called an "honorary Israeli."

October 12, 2006 01:03
It's in the genes

Kornberg 88. (photo credit: AP)


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Nobel Prize laureates with colleagues or even family in Israel are usually outsiders who come for a short time and then return home to their labs, desks and classrooms abroad. But Stanford University School of Medicine Prof. Roger Kornberg is an insider. Although not (yet) a citizen of the Jewish state, he has such strong ties that he could easily be called an "honorary Israeli." The 59-year-old sole recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Chemistry is married to an Israeli, the father of three Hebrew-speaking Israeli children who have attended and continue to attend local schools during the family's four months a year in Jerusalem. And Roger Kornberg and his wife Yahli - a prominent Hebrew University graduate and Stanford geneticist in her own right (a stunning woman and daughter of the late historian and Knesset clerk Netanel Lorch) have been coming and living here every June through September for the last 20 years. He and Yahli work together in the lab. "She is my longest and closest collaborator, in every way, on a daily basis. She is a very talented scientist with a very long record of accomplishment," her admiring husband says. The insane, senseless Palestinian violence during the two intifadas, the Lebanon wars and other unpleasant parts of Israeli reality did not deter the Kornberg family from dropping everything in Palo Alto, California, flying to Israel and settling down in their Talbiyeh apartment for long summers of living, touring, teaching and research. (Roger is a fan not only of Jerusalem but also of The Jerusalem Post: "I read the Post and like it very much. I can't think of another newspaper I'd want to speak to more.") But while news of his Nobel Prize has, since October 4, been mentioned more than 118,000 times on the Internet, online newspapers, Web sites, chat groups and blogs, the soft-spoken Kornberg has not granted many interviews. "I had visited Israel many times before I met Yahli when she was doing advanced work in genetics at Stanford," he told the Post in a phone interview this week, just days after learning that he will receive the Nobel in Stockholm in two months. "I have long felt a strong affiliation to Israel, but it's another matter when you become part of the family. Yahli is from Jerusalem, so it's only natural to spend a lot of time there. It was her condition when we got married. What began as that commitment developed far beyond it. I couldn't imagine life without being in Israel." "Do you feel Israeli, even though you are not a citizen?" I ask. "I have an Israeli wife and Israeli children, and we live in Israel a third of the year and share all the hopes and dreams of my Israeli colleagues," he says. Not coming one year or leaving early due to war and terror never crossed his mind. "Such times are for showing solidarity. We were nervous about our kids during the worst violence like any other parents, but we took some precautions. We have lived our lives normally," Kornberg says. "Elsewhere, people get a different impression about Israel from the media. Israel, they claim, is dangerous, but I don't feel it is any more dangerous than New York City or San Francisco, and in fact it is safer." Although Nobel laureates do not deliver "acceptance speeches," Kornberg knows that he will be invited to present a lecture on his discoveries. "There is no question" that he will mention Israel warmly in this speech. "It isn't even an issue." AND ALL this from a man who did not attend Jewish schools in St. Louis, where he was born, or California where he was raised, and received a "liberal Jewish background." His paternal grandparents came from Austro-Hungary (now Poland). His late mother Sylvy's parents came from Minsk and Riga, farther east. Roger's brother, Thomas, is a biochemistry and biophysics professor at the University of California in San Francisco, and his brother Kenneth is a California architect, specializing in laboratory design. Yahli and Roger's 20-year-old son Guy returned to the US from Jerusalem to attend university. "He has a deferment from the Israel Defense Forces, but it's perfectly possible that he will decide to do army service. It's not up to me." Their 15-year-old, Mia, and 11-year-old son, Gil, love Israel like Guy and feel equally comfortable in both countries, their father says. The surname Kornberg has been among the ranks of Nobel Prize laureates since his father, Prof. Arthur Kornberg - also of Stanford - won the prestigious Nobel in Medicine or Physiology in 1959. The Brooklyn-born Kornberg senior is now 88 and living in California. Arthur Kornberg won his Nobel for describing how genetic information is transferred from a mother cell to its daughters. What his son has now done is to describe how the genetic information is copied from DNA into what is called messenger RNA, which carries the information out of the cell nucleus so that it can be used to construct vital proteins. For 12-year-old Roger, his father's Nobel Prize meant being roused from his sleep by the news that his father had become a laureate. He fell back asleep and awoke the next morning to find his home littered with cold coffee and rolls from the celebrations. Last week, 47 years later, it was his turn to wake his father in the middle of the night. Roger remembers the ceremony in Stockholm vividly. The king of Sweden who will be presenting him with his Nobel is Carl XVI Gustaf, the son of King Gustaf VI Adolf who gave his father his award. But although they both studied the basic building blocks of genes, Roger Kornfeld says his father's influence on his field of study was not great. "He did something very different very long ago. I cannot forget that, but there was no meaningful connection between our work." While his Nobel category is chemistry, "this subject is no less connected to medicine. We study life chemistry." As his father was a physician, he considered going into medicine. "But as an undergraduate at Harvard, my inclination was towards physical sciences." But Roger says he has always been an admirer of his father's work "and that of many others preceding me. I view them as truly giants of the last 50 years. It's hard to count myself among them." In the 105 years the prizes have been awarded, the Kornbergs represent the seventh time a parent and child have each won a Nobel. The most notable was the Nobel in Physics awarded to the famous team of Pierre and Marie Curie (she was also the first female laureate in 1903); 32 years later, their daughter Irene Joliot-Curie shared the Chemistry Nobel with her husband, Frederic Joliot. ARTHUR KORNBERG, who is twice widowed, enjoys tennis, travel and music with his third wife in California and has visited Israel himself several times. In 1974, he was interviewed by Post journalist Macabee Dean when here to attend celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president who founded what became the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. "The most important medical research is not done in hospitals but in chemistry and biology laboratories in institutions of higher learning and research," he told Dean presciently in that interview. "The most important medical research is not done by physicians but by scientists in these institutions... One gets the impression that a lot of money is spent on medical research, but two percent is a small figure. It should be doubled to at least 4 percent and perhaps even reach 5%." He added that Israel "produces excellent scientists 'who export themselves' to find work, and those who stay are spread around so thin, in so many departments, that the excellence of the few outstanding departments is gradually eroded. Soon, the failure to keep the best men in the best departments, where they will do some outside work in technology, will lead to a lowering of the standards of basic science in Israel." A chill ran down my spine when I found this 32-year-old clipping in our archives after my interview with his son Roger, who had said some of the same things to me (even though he was undoubtedly unaware of his father's 1974 interview)! "The lack of money for Israeli scientific research is indeed a problem," the new Nobel laureate in chemistry told me. "It is a concern for the future. Israeli scientists have fewer resources, and if funding continues to be diminished, ultimately not only Israeli science but the whole country and its future will pay dearly. One hopes there will be significant appreciation of the critical importance of education and money for research. "Politicians," said Roger Kornberg, "think in the short term because they don't last long in office. But the payoff from investment in Israeli education and research comes in the long term. It is crucial to identify a solution. There is no doubt that government support for education at all levels must be increased. There is no reason why Israel should not have the best!" Ironically, when asked about his personal experience via his children with Israeli education, Kornberg said: "They attended the TALI School in Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan, Beit Hinuch and other schools. I have attended parent-teacher meetings. In my experience, their teachers have been superb. I have been greatly impressed by the skill and dedication of everyone in these schools. But the government is not investing enough in education." NEWS OF Kornberg's prize brought joy to his colleagues at the Hebrew University, where during his four months a year here he is a fellow and conducts research in the Department of Biological Chemistry at the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences and has been a visiting professor at the university since 1986. A professor of structural biology at Stanford, Kornberg said his annual move to Jerusalem is always seamless. "It has been crucial to my career. I have a remarkable group of colleagues at HU who have contributed to my academic and personal development." Outside HU, he also has good friends at Hadassah University Medical Center, the Weizmann Institute, Tel Aviv University and the Technion as well. Kornberg says his Stanford campus has been free of campaigns to divest of Israeli-related stocks or boycott research involving Israeli scientists or companies. "There is a high percentage of Jewish professors at Stanford. It isn't Europe. The boycott issue has never arisen at Stanford, and Muslims are a very small minority on our campus, unlike the UK. Boycotts of Israel are awful, atrocious, nauseating. They anger me beyond description. But even though they aren't at Stanford, you worry about the future and whether it will someday be a problem." He says that as an American Jew, he has never been a conscious victim of anti-Semitism, prejudice or even remarks. "I have heard stories that for the previous generation, it was prominent. There were quotas. I was told by older colleagues that it was harder to get into Harvard if you came from New York, because geographical quotas were set to reduce the numbers of Jewish students, who tended to come from New York." Kornberg joins a distinguished list of HU-affiliated scholars who have won Nobel prizes in the past few years: Prof. Robert Aumann of the HU's Institute of Mathematics and Center for the Study of Rationality received the Nobel Prize in Economics last year; Prof. Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University and HU's Center for the Study of Rationality also won it in 2002. Three others, all HU graduates, won Nobel Prizes in 2004: Prof. Avram Hershko and Prof. Aaron Ciechanover, winners of the Chemistry Nobel, and Prof. David J. Gross, the Physics laureate. "I am struck by the fact that Israelis are more than competitive in their fields," Kornberg enthused. "They do world-class science, despite very profound limitations in funding and even periodic military duty. That they can accomplish so much is testimony to their genius." And Kornberg has plenty of that rare commodity too. The Royal Swedish Academy of Science will give him his Nobel, worth $1.4 million, for "his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription." Transcription is the name given to the process in which information from DNA is copied into new strands of messenger RNA (mRNA). Kornberg, who published his findings in the journal Science in 2000, was the first to create an actual picture of how transcription works at a molecular level in the important group of organisms called eukaryotes (organisms whose cells have a well-defined nucleus). His pictures are so detailed that separate atoms can be distinguished, and this makes it possible to understand the mechanisms of transcription and how it is regulated. In laymen's terms, he discovered how cells take information from genes to produce vital proteins, a process that could provide insight into defeating cancer and advancing stem cell research. Disturbances in transcription are involved in many human illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation. Understanding transcription is also vital to the development of treatments using stem cells by helping to understand how they develop into different kinds of specific cells, with well-defined functions in different organs. "Understanding more about how transcription is regulated is therefore one of the necessary steps if we want to realize the full potential of stem cells in medicine," the Swedish academy said in a description of his work. Inevitably, Kornberg's pioneering research will have an impact on health. "In my lab, where I have 15 or 18 people now, we do basic research, but applications are not far into the future. There have already been some immediate applications and derivations, such as development of better antibiotics in the face of bacterial resistance as well as other drugs." KORNBERG INSISTS that in his long scientific career, he "never pursued" the Nobel. "It's not something you can go after. The best way to get it is not to be distracted with such concerns. If you get lucky you may get it, and I got lucky." He received more than 1,500 congratulatory e-mail messages, calls, letters and faxes within the first week of the Swedish academy announcement. "The most moving was from Jerusalem, from my wife," who remains in Israel until the end of October with the two younger children. How will the Nobel Prize change his life? "It won't be easier to get grant money for research; that is handed out solely on the basis of merit. I hope life won't change at all. I have much left to do. I hope to solve scientific problems that engage my interest." Asked what he will do with the prize money, Kornberg said: "One has to pay half in taxes, at least that's what happened with my previous awards." He has received many prizes for his research, including the Eli Lilly Award, the Passano Award, the Ciba-Drew Award and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology's Harvey Prize. Five years ago, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from HU. Perhaps it's worth it for him to become a fully-fledged Israeli after all, I suggest, as the government granted the two latest Israeli laureates, Hershko and Ciechanover, a full tax exemption on their Nobel Prize money.

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