American Wins Chemistry Nobel for DNA Work

Roger Kornsberg

Roger Kornsberg has won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on DNA transcription. Stanford University hide caption

itoggle caption Stanford University

The 2006 Nobel Prize in chemistry will go to Stanford biologist Roger Kornberg, who discovered how cells read genetic information encoded in DNA. Kornberg is the second in his family to win the prize — his father Arthur won the 1959 Nobel Prize in medicine for his own work on DNA.

Kornberg created the first detailed description of DNA transcription — the process which transfers genetic information stored in DNA to proteins in the body. DNA can be subdivded into genes, which encode specialized proteins that perform specific functions in a cell. Through transcription and translation, cells can read the genetic information from the DNA and produce the amino acids that make up proteins.

Kornberg created the first detailed pictures of how this process works at the cellular level. His images shed light on one of the most important chemical reactions in the human body. He will receive the prize, worth $1.4 million, in Stockholm later this year.

Like Nobel Father, Like Nobel Son

Marie, Irene and Eve Curie

Eve (left) and Irene Curie stand with their mother Marie in a garden. The Curie family has won a total of five Nobel Prizes. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images

When Roger Kornberg was 12, he traveled to Stockholm to watch his father receive the Nobel Prize in medicine. This year, Kornberg will travel to Stockholm again –- to pick up his own Nobel Prize.

The father-and-son duo received their prizes for their (separate) groundbreaking work on DNA. Which begs the question: Are Nobel-Prize-winning-genes somehow inherited?

Though that's likely to be the topic for some future Nobel contender, clearly some families have what it takes.

Two brothers and six fathers and sons have won Nobels since the prize was first awarded in 1901. Four married couples have shared the prize together.

Here, a list of some of the relatives that can each pull out a Nobel over Thanksgiving dinner. And you thought bringing that special gravy deserved a prize.

The Curie Family

Poor Eve Curie. Her older sister, brother-in-law and parents each won a Nobel Prize. (Her mom won two.) Eve was a writer and musician. Imagine what those backseat car rides were like.

Eve's parents Marie and Pierre won the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics for discovering the elements polonium and radium. Eight years later, Marie would win a second award, this time in chemistry, for continuing to study the effects of radium and radiation.

In 1933, Marie and Pierre's daughter Irene and their son-in-law Frédéric Joliot found that stable elements exposed to radiation were also radioactive. They also discovered several isotopes, including iodine, which was found to treat thyroid syndrome. In 1935, Irene and Frederic shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Both Marie and Irene died in their 50s from leukemia, after years of radiation exposure.

And Eve? Eve is 102 and recently wrote the biography Madame Curie about the life of her mother.

The Braggs

The appropriately-named Braggs became fascinated with X-rays in 1895, when 5-year-old William Lawrence fell off a tricycle and broke his arm. His father, Sir William Henry, examined the arm using newly discovered x-ray technology.

Twenty years later, the two men became the only father-son duo to share a Nobel Prize, winning in 1915 for their work involving X-ray diffraction and crystallography. The younger Bragg then became director of the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge, where James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA in 1953. Watson and Crick were later awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962.

The Bohrs

Nobel Prize winners are drawn to the Bohr family in the same way electrons circle an atom: through gravitational force.

Dad Niels studied with J.J. Thomson, who discovered the electron and made one of the first models of the atom. He also spent time in the lab of nucleus-discoverer Ernest Rutherford. Both Thomson and Rutherford were later awarded Nobels for their work in chemistry. (Thomson's son also won a Nobel, in 1937, for his work in electron defraction.)

Niels Bohr was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for his own model of the atom. In his model, a small positively charged nucleus is surrounded by waves of electrons. You might remember the image from your high school chemistry textbook — it's still the model we use today.

While growing up in Denmark, Niels' son Aage remembers "Uncle" Pauli and "Uncle" Heisenberg, who each won a Nobel Prize for their work in quantum mechanics. Aage would later win his own Nobel Prize in Physics in 1975 for his work involving quantum mechanics and nuclear theory.

The Tinbergens

In the four years between Jan's win in 1969 in economics and his brother Nikolaas' win in 1973 for medicine, a healthy sibling rivalry most likely ensued in the Tinbergen household. Jan and Nikolaas remain the only brothers to both win the prize.

Jan developed the first mathematical models that could be applied to the social sciences. After World War II, he constructed the first econometric model of the United States, a visual model combining statistics and economic theory. He later developed a model which found that large differences between the highest and lowest income level at a company may be counterproductive for the company.

Nikolaas — four years younger than Jan — says in his autobiography that he "was not much interested in school [and] only just scraped through, with as little effort as [he] judged possible without failing."

While scraping through, Nikolaas spent his time outside observing seagulls. His observations led to important observations on patterns of social behavior in animals. He also is credited with reviving the field of animal behavior after discovering that both instinctive and learned behavior is necessary for long-term species survival.

He didn't need to observe seagulls to discover that. Anyone with siblings would say the same.

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