One of the feel-good stories of the week was Stanford University's Roger Kornberg winning the 2006 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, completing a rare father-son Nobel Prize quinella.

Given that only 763 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to individuals in history, the chance of two members of the same family winning is not as small as you might think. Indeed, there have been four people who have won the prize twice, four married couples, one mother and daughter, one father and daughter, six father and son combinations and one pair of brothers who have one the prize.

The most prolific Nobel Laureate family is without doubt the Curies – husband-wife team Marie and Pierre Curie won the Physics prize in 1903, Marie won again for Chemistry in 1911, then their daughter Irene Joliot-Curie and her husband Frederic Joliot won for Chemistry in 1935. Stanford shared a second Nobel Prize this week when Andrew Fire shared this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Craig Mello.

Kornberg's work

In order for our bodies to make use of the information stored in the genes, a copy must first be made and transferred to the outer parts of the cells. There it is used as an instruction for protein production – it is the proteins that in their turn actually construct the organism and its function. The copying process is called transcription. Roger 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). Mammals like ourselves are included in this group, as is ordinary yeast.

Transcription is necessary for all life. This makes the detailed description of the mechanism that Roger Kornberg provides exactly the kind of "most important chemical discovery" referred to by Alfred Nobel in his will.

If transcription stops, genetic information is no longer transferred into the different parts of the body. Since these are then no longer renewed, the organism dies within a few days. This is what happens in cases of poisoning by certain toadstools, like the death cap, since the toxin stops the transcription process. Understanding of how transcription works also has a fundamental medical importance. Disturbances in the transcription process are involved in many human illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation.

The capacity of stem cells to develop into different types of specific cells with well-defined functions in different organs, is also linked to how the transcription is regulated. Understanding more about the transcription process is therefore important for the development of different therapeutic applications of stem cells.

Forty-seven years ago, the then twelve-year-old Roger Kornberg travelled to Stockholm to see his father, Arthur Kornberg, receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1959) for his studies of how genetic information is transferred from one DNA-molecule to another.

Kornberg senior had described how genetic information is transferred from a mother cell to its daughters. What Roger Kornberg himself has now done is to describe how the genetic information is copied from DNA into what is called messenger-RNA. The messenger-RNA carries the information out of the cell nucleus so that it can be used to construct the proteins.

Kornberg's contribution has culminated in his creation of detailed crystallographic pictures describing the transcription apparatus in full action in a eukaryotic cell. In his pictures (all of them created since 2000) we can see the new RNA-strand gradually developing, as well as the role of several other molecules necessary for the transcription process. The 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.

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