(photo credit: AP)
The Stanford University biologist who was named on Wednesday as this year's Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry - Prof. Roger Kornberg - just spent four months at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is a fellow at the Alexander Silberman Institute for Life Sciences.
Kornberg told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive phone interview that his stays in Israel are a significant part of his life.
People of the year: Noble achievements
Kornberg, whose father won a Nobel Prize for medicine nearly 50 years ago, was awarded the prize for his studies of how cells take information from genes to produce proteins, a process that could provide insight into defeating cancer and advancing stem cell research.
Disturbances in that process, known as transcription, are involved in many human illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation. Understanding transcription also is vital to the development of treatments using stem cells.
"Knowledge about the transcription process is also fundamental for understanding how stem cells develop into different kinds of specific cells, with well-defined functions in different organs," the Royal Swedish Academy said in its citation. He will also receive a check for 1.1 million euros.
"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 academy said of the sometimes politically controversial process.
Kornberg has been a visiting professor at Hebrew University four months a year every summer since 1986. His Israeli-born wife, Yahli, is the daughter of the late historian and Knesset clerk, Netanel Lorch, and their three children are fluent Hebrew speakers.
It emerged during the telephone interview while he was in his office in Stanford that Kornberg is not only academically connected to Israel, but also emotionally. He said some of the Israeli scientists he has met are the "finest scientists" he knows, adding that the level of academic and scientific research in Israel is "world class".
As for the often-heard outcry about the poor quality of education, Kornberg said his message for Israeli leaders is simple: "there is no better investment than nurturing educationâ€¦ in the long term, aside from defense, there is nothing more crucial".
Asked whether he deems the boycotting of Israeli academics and academic institutions justified, the laureate told The Post: "It is awful. It's atrocious. It angers me beyond description."
Kornberg's research is already being used to create new treatments. "There are... already many therapies, many drugs that are in development, in trials or already available, and there will be many more," he said. "Significant benefits to human health are already forthcoming. I think there will be many, many more."
The new laureate's father, Prof. Arthur Kornberg, also of Stanford in Palo Alto, California, shared the 1959 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Prof. Severo Ochoa of New York University for their discovery of the mechanisms of the biological synthesis of RNA and DNA.
Roger Kornberg said he remembered traveling to Stockholm with his father for the Nobel prize ceremony.
"I have always been an admirer of his 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," he said.
Yahli, who works with her husband in California, studied genetics at Hebrew University and met him at Stanford. She and their children are all Israeli citizens. Their son Guy is in college, daughter Maya in high school and son Gil in elementary school; the whole family comes to Jerusalem every summer.
Hebrew University president Prof. Menahem Magidor said, "We are very proud and congratulate Prof. Roger Kornberg, who has been working with us for many years. We are honored that he and other leading scientists from around the world view the Hebrew University as an attractive academic institution at which to conduct their research."
Prof. Hermona Soreq, dean of HU's Faculty of Science, told The Post that she was thrilled at the announcement. She spoke to Kornberg's wife, who said he had been preparing for the Nobel Prize all his life. "We knew he would get it." Soreq said. "It was just a matter of when."
Kornberg owns an apartment in Jerusalem. "He has come here in wars and despite terror attacks," Soreq said. "When I asked him how long he would continue coming for months every year, he said, "For the rest of my life."
According to the Swedish Academy, Kornberg 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.
Kornberg's pictures are so detailed that individual atoms can be distinguished, making it possible to understand the mechanisms of transcription and how it is regulated.
Born in St. Louis in 1947, Kornberg completed his undergraduate education in chemistry at Harvard University and earned his doctorate at Stanford.
In 1978, after a postdoctoral fellowship in Cambridge, England, and a brief tenure at the Harvard Medical School's department of biological chemistry, he returned to Stanford. He has received many prizes for his work in structural biology, including the Eli Lilly Award, the Passano Award, the Ciba-Drew Award and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology's Harvey Prize. In 2001, he received an honorary doctorate from HU.
Kornberg and colleagues discovered the structure of the RNA polymerase protein, a pivotal molecules that copies genes from DNA to RNA - an essential step in the transfer of information from gene to protein. Kornberg, who published his findings in the journal Science in 2000, said it was probably the most important protein in biology, as its structure provided the basis for understanding all gene activity in eukaryotic cells.
Every cell of a person's body contains identical DNA. What makes varied cells - such as blood, nerve and liver cells - differ is the selective copying of genes by RNA polymerase into mRNA for the eventual production of the different proteins in each cell type.
This selective transcription of genes is the basis for the development of a single cell, the fertilized egg, into a human with many cell types. Analyzing the RNA polymerase structure is a requirement for understanding this process, Kornberg wrote.
The RNA polymerase enzyme consists of 12 separate protein subunits. Using data collected via X-ray crystallography, researchers in Kornberg's lab constructed a model of how the individual subunits fit together to form the RNA polymerase complex.
"This is a machine with moving parts," said Kornberg. "We think that one of the important moving parts of this machine is the clamp that swings over the DNA. The affinity of the polymerase for DNA is known to be remarkable," he wrote. "Transcribing genes of enormous length takes many hours to do. It would be a disaster if [the polymerase] fell off near the end."
AP contributed to this report.