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And the Nobel Prize goes to…

The Red Cross is the organization to receive the most, with three. Martin Luther King was the youngest – until Malala Yousafzai won at the tender age of 17 that is. Jean-Paul Sartre famously won and refused it. Mother Teresa won it but has since been brutally called out since for her inhumane treatment of the poor. Paul Hermann Müller won it in 1948 for the pesticide DDT, which went on to create one of the worst environmental disasters in history. Gandhi was nominated 5 times but never won, dying a few days after his last nomination and leaving the year 1948 “not awarded because there was no suitable living candidate”. It was suspended during the chaos of the great wars and none were awarded in 1914, 15, 17 and 18 due to WWI or 1939-43 for WWII.

I am talking, of course, about the Nobel Prize.

In science, perhaps the most famous recent award is for the prediction of the existence of the Higgs Boson particle, discovered at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Overall, the most famous recipient ever is likely Marie Curie. She went down in history as the first person to win two. She took Nobel Prizes in 1903 and 1911 for getting radium and polonium out of pitchblende, with her own elbow power. Both elements are more radioactive than uranium. Shockingly, luminous paints were created with radium and used on clocks, watches, and instrument panels.

Another wildly famous, or more aptly, infamous, Nobel Prize is that for the DNA Double Helix. In 1962, Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for showing that the two strands of DNA mirror each other to form a helix. The award left out Rosalind Franklin who created the famous “Photo 51” of the crystalline structure of the DNA helix, an image that “changed the world”. As Nobel prizes can’t be given posthumously, she couldn’t win outright, but her colleagues calling her “The Dark Lady” was far from ideal ethical or scientific conduct.

Portrait of Marie Curie, c. 1898. Image © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Marie Curie, c. 1898, five years before she won her first Nobel Prize. Image © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Frances Crick sold his medal for US$2.27 million and James Watson for US$4.76 million in 2014. Watson got his medal back from the anonymous buyer. Watson’s Nobel speech and a lecture sold for an additional $610,000. When Crick sold a letter he wrote to his 12 year old son describing the discovery, it sold for $6 million making it the most expensive letter in history.

Both Curie and the Double Helix are secure in most lists of the top Nobel prizes in history. This list also includes a second DNA Nobel. A year after Fleming et al won for isolating the first antibiotic, penicillin, Hermann Muller won in 1946 for discovering the mutating effects of X-ray radiation. For years, radiation would be used to create new types of domesticated crops, for example the deliciously sweet Ruby Red grapefruit through DNA mutagenesis, effectively speeding up evolution and human ability to artificially select beneficial mutations. Penicillin can also be considered a DNA Nobel, as the DNA sequence for this antibiotic has since saved the lives of millions.

DNA has fared well in the Nobel stakes. While DNA research took a while to take off, the second half of the last century saw many wins.

Ochoa and Kornberg (1959) won for synthesizing DNA and RNA, respectively. Holley, Khorana, and Nirenberg (1968) cracked the genetic code, the triplets that signal which amino acid comes next in the chain of a protein. Arbers, Nathans, and Smith (1978) found enzymes in bacteria that chop DNA and fuelled the recombinant DNA revolution. Barbara McClintock (1983) discovered jumping genes in corn, called transposable elements, that, for example, paint corn kernels different colors.

Genomics was launched by the invention of DNA sequencing and the invention of a way of copying DNA in a test tube to make any quantity desired for further study and manipulation. Gilbert, and Sanger (1980, chemistry) won for their methods of DNA sequencing and Mullis (1993, chemistry) for developing the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR).

The Nobel Prize, which is given to individuals who confer “the greatest benefit on mankind”, was established through a bequest from Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel. He left money and directions in his will in 1985 to set up prized for Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine and Peace. A prize for economics was later endowed in 1968 by members of the banking community. The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901 to Frédéric Passy for founding the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Henry Dunant for setting up the Red Cross.

If the Nobel Prize had been established earlier, one certainly would have be bestowed on the Swiss doctor, Friedrich Miescher, who first discovered DNA in 1869 and to the monk, Gregor Mendel, who established that inheritance comes in units (genes) doing experiments on the heritability of colours in the flowers of sweet peas only two years before.

So what might be the next DNA Nobel Prize?

In 2014, three leaders of the public human genome project from the National Institute of Health (NIH), Collins, Lander and Botstein, received the Albany Prize, also called “America’s Nobel”. Notably missing is Craig Venter who produced the private version of the human genome sequence through his company Celera. Genomic projects are famous for being the work of casts of hundreds to thousands, and therefore less likely to win, but the human genome is certainly a candidate.

The CRISPR gene-editing system is the likeliest bet. In 2015, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences. Founded in 2013 by the likes of Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, and Mark Zuckerberg and others, it extends the scope of the Noble’s, giving awards in fundamental physics, mathematics, and life sciences.

Looking over the past roster of awards, it is dominated by DNA wins.

Featured image credit: DNA fairy lights, by Stuart Cale. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. M Etherton

    Spot the deliberate mistake: “Portrait of Marie Curie, c. 1898, five years before she won his first Nobel Prize.”

  2. Mike Pollard

    Linus Pauling won two – Chemistry and Peace. Cure is the only one to win 2 in the sciences.

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