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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes not to a chemist but to a biologist.

Roger Kornberg at Stanford University is being honored for figuring out the details about how our cells read DNA. He's not the first in his family to win a Nobel Prize. His father Arthur Kornberg won in 1959.

NPR's Richard Harris is covering this story. Richard, good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what did Mr. Kornberg do?

HARRIS: Well, what Mr. Kornberg did was got very deep and personal with something called the central dogma of biology, DNA, which is what our genes are on. The central dogma says that DNA makes RNA, and RNA makes proteins. It's sort of the whole translation service, if you will. Think of DNA as the tape in a tape recorder. Well, he sort of figured out how the tape recorder works.

An enzyme called RNA polymerase that actually takes that DNA and reads it letter by letter and translates it into RNA.

INSKEEP: And this tape recorder determines how we grow and what we are?

HARRIS: Absolutely. Everything about us is encoded in our cells in the DNA, but it does no good just sitting there in DNA. Our cells have to make proteins to say, hey, I'm a liver cell, or a heart cell or whatever.

So he figured out in incredible detail exactly how that process works by taking pictures, atom by atom pictures, of how this enzyme reads the DNA. And it's, you know, it turns out to be something like a Rube Goldberg contraption, with little springs and things that flap around and so on. And it took years and years to get - to figure out how to actually look at this thing atom by atom. But that's essentially what he did.

INSKEEP: So why does it matter if you know how this process works?

HARRIS: It matters because life wouldn't exist without this process, in the first place. And, as you would expect, anything that central to biology is also central to medicine. It is related to various diseases and so on.

And it - basically, I mean it's really fundamentally a biological thing that, you know, if you want to understand life, you really have to understand this part of the chemistry of life.

INSKEEP: Could this affect stem cell research and treatments for disease as well?

HARRIS: It's a little far off of that kind of work because it's so fundamental. But, you know, there are a few things that directly interfere with it. For example, Death Cap mushrooms will actually jam up this process, and that's why they kill you. But it is really very fundamental. It's not, you know, therapy is around the corner.

INSKEEP: Now we have to wonder on this morning that Roger Kornberg has won the Nobel Prize what it was like for him growing up in a family knowing that his father had won the Nobel Prize.

HARRIS: Absolutely. When he was a little kid, he went off to Stockholm in 1959, when his father won the Nobel Prize in medicine actually, for actually work that's not so unfamiliar. And his father, Arthur, was also at Stanford University. Roger grew up in Stanford. He went to college, he got his PhD at Stanford and then he got on the faculty at Stanford.

And it's, you know, been obviously a great treat for Stanford to have two generations now of Kornberg's winning Nobel Prizes.

INSKEEP: Well, let's continue the unintentional commercial for Stanford here. The Nobel Prize in medicine was also shared by a Stanford biologist. What are they doing right over there?

HARRIS: Yeah. Well, they are doing a lot right, obviously. I think they have taken a very broad view about how to do biology, and sort of these are - these guys are in the medical school, but you would never know it because they're doing biology as well as, you know, more than medicine, really. And it's - I think it's a similar reason that Stanford decided that it wanted to get deep into stem cells as well and is building big facilities to do that.

INSKEEP: So has anybody else been a father/son combination for a Nobel Prize?

HARRIS: There have been a number of families. This is not the first family here. Niels Bohr's son won it at one point. The whole Curie family won it, Madame Curie and her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie and Pierre Curie. Actually, Madame Curie won two of the prizes. And there are a few others. There are even a couple of brothers who've won Nobels. So it's not that extraordinary, but it's obviously not an everyday occurrence either.

INSKEEP: Kind of like military brats. It runs in the family. Nobel Prize brats.

HARRIS: I guess so.

INSKEEP: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Richard Harris.

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