MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to a man who watched his father receive the Nobel Prize 47 years ago. Roger Kornberg at Stanford University is being honored for figuring out exactly how cells read the instructions that are written in our DNA.
NPR's Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS: Roger Kornberg has had a passion for science as long as his father, Arthur, can remember.
Dr. ARTHUR KORNBERG (Nobel Laureate): When he was about eight, and I asked what he wanted for Christmas, his answer was simply a week in the lab. I don't think it's changed much since then.
HARRIS: There's a picture on a Stanford Web site of little Roger in 1959 in Stockholm, when his father received the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Roger says his father was his first teacher but not really the reason he decided to go into science himself.
Dr. ROGER KORNBERG (Winner, 2006 Nobel Prize for Chemistry): I would say that I was always interested in science and I would've done it regardless, but of course it was very much helped and nurtured by the environment in which I grew up.
HARRIS: Roger's father helped build a world class biology program at Stanford University. Roger got his Ph.D. there and then came back to join the faculty. His passion is to understand the most fundamental chemistry of life. In particular, he's been trying to figure out exactly how our cells read the genetic instructions that are encoded in our DNA. If you think of DNA as the tape in a tape recorder, Roger Kornberg has been trying to understand the playback head.
Dr. ROGER KORNBERG: The molecule we study is the central molecule of life. It is the molecule that reads the genetic information, and our work has led in the last few years to discovering the arrangement of all the 30,000 atoms that make up this molecule.
HARRIS: It's a lot like a Rube Goldberg Contraption, with flaps here and pieces jutting off there. But without it, we wouldn't exist. After many years of struggle, Roger Kornberg finally figured out how to isolate this very fragile molecular machine and to catch it in the act of transcribing the message from DNA. He used X-rays to make exquisitely detailed pictures. It's basic knowledge about how our cells work, and Kornberg expects that knowledge of this precise structure will lead to new drugs to treat cancer and other diseases.
Dr. ROGER KORNBERG: There are very few benefits that we can derive to our health and the rest of our lives in these modern times that can't be traced back to the acquisition of basic knowledge.
HARRIS: That thirst for knowledge and understanding runs deep in the family, Arthur Kornberg says.
Dr. ARTHUR KORNBERG: Roger's next youngest brother is a professor at U.C. San Francisco and my youngest son is an architect whose specialty is scientific laboratories.
HARRIS: Can you think of what you might have done that conveyed to your children the joy and the rewards of science?
Dr. ARTHUR KORNBERG: I've wondered, I've wondered. I think it must have been evident to them that I was consumed with my work, but I don't think I ever pressured them.
HARRIS: This is not the only family with a history of Nobel Prizes. A century ago, Marie Curie won not only two for herself, but her husband won one, their daughter won one, and her daughter's husband was a Nobel Laureate as well. Niels Bohr and his son also won Nobels, to mention one other example. It's the Kornberg family's turn to celebrate today. Arthur looks forward to the actual ceremony in Stockholm, at which Roger will receive a gold medal and a prize worth $1.4 million.
Dr. ARTHUR KORNBERG: We will go to Stockholm. They throw a great party. I'm 88 years old and not traveling as much as I did, but I look forward to that party.
HARRIS: I can well imagine. Twice in a lifetime in a way for you.
Dr. ARTHUR KORNBERG: Yes. I am so grateful and got lucky.
HARRIS: Well, he admits it wasn't just luck.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
BLOCK: You can read about other prize winning Nobel families at NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.