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Kornberg second family member
to receive Nobel Prize

By Anna Molin, Bay City News Service

October 5, 2006

STANFORD (BCN) - When 12-year-old Roger Kornberg watched his father Arthur Kornberg receive the Nobel Prize in 1959, little did he know that 47 years later he would be asked to return to Sweden as the family's second Nobel laureate.

Kornberg, now 59 and a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, today won the $1.4 million prize in chemistry for his research on transcription, the process in which genetic information is transferred to different parts of the body, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

He is second Stanford University professor and third Bay Area scholar to be named a Nobel winner this week.

Kornberg's detailed breakdown of the transcription process at a molecular level helped explain how cells extract information from genes and how that process sometime goes awry, leading to diseases such as cancer, birth defects and heart disease.

Understanding the transcription process also helps scientists recognize how stem cells can be used to treat diseases, according to the academy.

The elder Kornberg won his prize in medicine, for studies of how genetic information is transferred from one DNA molecule to another. His son, meanwhile, expanded the research to describe how genetic information is copied from DNA into so-called messenger RNA, which carries the information out of the cell nucleus for protein construction. Proteins, in turn, serve as the cell's workhorse or building blocks.

Since 2000, Roger Kornberg has used crystallography to show atomic-level detailed pictures of how messenger RNA molecules develop.

"It was a technical tour de force that took about 20 years of work to accomplish," Joseph Puglisi, professor and chair of the department of structural biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said of Kornberg's work. "Like other great scientists, Roger doesn't quit. He's stubborn. A lot of scientists would have given up after five years. Kornberg's determination, coupled with his expertise in both crystallography and biochemistry, finally cracked the code.''

The Kornbergs are the sixth father and son to receive Nobel prizes. One father-daughter team has also won double honors.

"I'm a biochemist and he's a biochemist, but beyond that he's a crystallographer, a structural chemist and a geneticist," Arthur Kornberg said of his son. "I have felt for some time that he richly deserved it. His work has been awesome.''

He later added with a laugh, "I am very grateful, and so is my family, that I was still around when it happened.''

Roger Kornberg said he was not expecting the 2:30 a.m. telephone call notifying him about the prize.

"It's not something you plan on,'' Kornberg said. "It's not something that motivates you to do your work. It was not out of the realm of the possibility in recent years but it was always unlikely ... I was surprised.''

Born in St. Louis, Kornberg was the first of three children born to Arthur Kornberg and his wife, Sylvy, also a biochemist. As a student at Woodside High School in San Mateo County, class of 1964, Kornberg distinguished himself as an intellectual.

"He had that aura of genius around him," former classmate Ron Gordon, now a teacher at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, said today. In fact, Gordon said classmates used to joke that Kornberg's middle name was Roger, calling him "Whoa Roger Kornberg" because he was so smart.

This year's Nobel Prize announcements began Monday when Stanford University Professor of Pathology and Genetics Andrew Fire, 47, shared the prize in physiology or medicine for discovering a mechanism that turns off, or silences, the effect of certain genes, introducing potential new opportunities for fighting diseases.

On Tuesday, George Smoot, 61, a University of California, Berkeley astrophysicist, was one of a pair to win the prize in physics for shedding light on the origins of the universe.

Each winner will receive a check, a medal and a diploma delivered by Sweden's King Carl Gustaf XVI at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

Copyright © 2006 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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