Saturday 27 October 2007

Arthur Kornberg - DNA Pioneer, dies

Another DNA genius in the news

Arthur Kornberg and Severo Ochoa shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine 1959 “for their discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid.”

I looked for other explanations of this citation beyond the fact that they had done some pioneering work with DNA, and DNA has been in the news and my blogs quite prominently lately.

In Wikipedia, it says he was experimenting with the enzymes which created DNA and in 1956 he isolated the first DNA polymerising enzyme, now known as DNA polymerase I, for which he won the Nobel Prize.

That still looked like a big chunk till I found bite-sized bits I could digest with this – “Kornberg discovered the chemical mechanism that demonstrated how DNA - the blueprint of heredity - gets constructed in the cell.”

These studies laid the foundation for genetic engineering and the techniques used in creating certain drugs for cancer and viral infections. This area of discovery differs from Dr. Watson’s area of research that won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine 1962, although James Watson and Francis Crick had put forward a formal model of how DNA is replicated in the early ’50s, Kornberg discovered the actual chemical mechanism by which the huge amount of DNA that comprises a chromosome gets constructed in the cell.

An exemplary legacy

Dr. Arthur Kornberg died yesterday at the age of 89 after respiratory failure at Stanford Hospital and he was said to be working literally up to the time of his death.

In 1959, he took his 12-year old son to Stockholm to collect his prize and what great father’s pride he would have had when his son Roger won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2006 outright “for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription.” To which he said, “I have felt for some time that he richly deserved it, his work has been awesome.” That work was more or less the continuation of the work and the interest of his father in enzymes.

They both returned to Stockholm 47 years after his award to attend that of his son, however, I note in all the tributes paid to this great scientist, there is no mention of any controversy or the legendary Nobel Syndrome that ravages the persona of Dr. Watson to an advanced stage of debilitation.


Spyros Andreopoulos who in 1963 became the director of the Office of News and Public Affairs at the Stanford University Medical Center said this of him, when he was to meet the Nobel laureate the first time, “I was scared. Someone had warned me that Nobel laureates behaved like God-like princes, to my surprise, he was entirely unpretentious. Our first meeting was the beginning of an enduring friendship in which he let me share his challenges and triumphs.”

If he had survived, he would have been promoting his latest book which is scheduled for release on November 15 called Germ Stories, a book for children telling of the essence and wonder of bacteria in stories.

I must not fail to add that Sylvy Ruth Levy Kornberg his wife of 43 years who died in 1986 worked full-time in Dr. Kornberg’s laboratory contributing to his DNA research days and was heard to say. “I was robbed!” the day after the Nobel Prize for her husband was announced.

Dr. Kornberg leaves a great legacy to science not only with his work but also his children who are in fields of biochemistry and biophysics as well as the architecture of laboratory design.

Rest in peace.


Arthur Kornberg, MD, 1918-2007 - Office of Communications & Public Affairs - Stanford University School of Medicine

Photos - Arthur Kornberg, MD, 1918-2007

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