Nobel prizes recognize excellence in research

Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There was a flurry of excitement last week as the 2009 Nobel Prizes were announced. The awards in the science categories were given to researchers who made profound contributions to research in their respective fields. Presented here are small glimpses into the discoveries made by each of these researchers.

The Nobel Prize in physics: Awarded to Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle, and George E. Smith

The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to three researchers for two different contributions. According to the award statement, Charles K. Kao was awarded half the prize “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication.” Kao provided the basis for making usable optical fibers. Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith share the other half “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit — the CCD.” This sensor is highly beneficial as it is present in most high quality cameras.

These two contributions originate from vastly different approaches to the scientific process and shed light on the various ways in which science can leave its mark on society.

Kao’s contribution is one derived from years of meticulous work on an already well–established technology. Optical fibers had been around for decades when he made his breakthrough in the 1960s. Indeed, there was already a large market for them in various short range applications. According to Carnegie Mellon physics professor Randall Feenstra, “the fibers available had too many impurities and so the light would be attenuated (lose much of its energy).” Kao determined after extensive research that this was due to the fact that the glass was not pure enough. This was the push that got the snowball of innovation rolling. After this, the obstacles in the way of useful optical cables fell steadily. These days, most of the information on earth travels by similar cables. The Nobel committee showed real insight in choosing Kao for this prestigious award.

In contrast with Kao’s steady progress, the CCD — or charged-coupled device — was invented in an hour-long brainstorming session at Bell Labs. Boyle and Smith wanted to come up with a better form of computer memory so that the funding to their department would not be cut, but they were sidetracked by this idea.
According to Feenstra, a CCD is “a silicon device that is light sensitive and records charge.” All high quality professional cameras use CCDs to capture images because they have extremely high resolution (they can pick out fine details) and provide very accurate images. Indeed, they are responsible for the incredible pictures coming from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Another interesting fact is that the Nobel Prize oscillated between highly theoretical and practical results. Last year, it was awarded for a highly theoretical (and extremely important) discovery about the universe. This year is the other end of that oscillation, given to three men who changed the way light impacts our lives.

The Nobel Prize in medicine: Awarded to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, and Jack W. Szostak

The 100th physiology or medicine Nobel Prize was awarded “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.” This is also the first time in history that more than one woman has claimed a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Although many researchers had observed that the ends of chromosomes — telomeres — served as a protection of sorts, no one was quite sure what exactly these telomeres were. All they knew was that they basically acted like caps at the end of the genetic data. Using DNA-sequencing methods, Blackburn showed that telomeres were simply a collection of repeated DNA sequences.

She and Szostak then took an organism that lives in a pond, a tetrahymena, and discovered that the organism’s telomeres protected it from yeast. Because yeast is evolutionarily very different from the pond-dwelling organism, the two researchers concluded that the telomeres’ defensive behavior expands beyond that of just the tetrahymena, and is a biological feature of most other organisms as well.

Blackburn, along with Carol Greider, continued to do research and experiments that tried to understand exactly how telomeres were made from one DNA replication to the next. As stated in an article in USA Today, in 1984, on Christmas Day, the two women found evidence to show that an enzyme named telomerase is what adds the telomeres to the end of chromosomes.

This discovery served as a possible solution to how extra DNA could have been added to the end of chromosomes during DNA replication. This telomorase enzyme is now known to provide a template with which DNA synthesis at the ends of chromosomes can take place. Because of this discovery, it is now understood that telomerase can delay the aging of cells and that if the ends of chromosomes become shorter, the cell is getting older. This gives insight into dangerous cells, such as cancer cells, which have telomeres that do not seem to shorten.

The Nobel Prize in chemistry: Awarded to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz, and Ada E. Yonath

The Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz, and Ada E. Yonath “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome.”

The three were each independently responsible for decoding the innermost workings of the ribosome, which is an integral part of the cells that make up our bodies. These ribosomes create the proteins that form the basis of the building blocks of life, DNA and RNA.

Using a method called X-ray crystallography that uses X-rays to analyze the atomic structure of entities, the three laureates independently constructed precise 3-D models of the ribosomes. This allowed other researchers to study them in much greater detail, opening up many new opportunities. One area affected greatly was that of antibiotics. Indeed more than half of all antibiotics target the ribosome of bacteria. Greater knowledge of ribosomes enables antibiotics to be significantly more effective.