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US scientists scoop Nobel science prizes

US scientists have scooped this year's Nobel prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry.

On 2 October, the Medicine Nobel prize of SEK 10 million (€1.37 million) went to research duo Andrew Fire, a professor of pathology and genetics at Stanford University, and Craig M...

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US scientists have scooped this year's Nobel prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry.

On 2 October, the Medicine Nobel prize of SEK 10 million (€1.37 million) went to research duo Andrew Fire, a professor of pathology and genetics at Stanford University, and Craig Mello, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts, for their discovery of a mechanism which silences malfunctioning genes. Experts believe that this breakthrough could lead to treatments for a whole host of diseases.

DNA holds the information needed to build all the proteins that make life possible. The information in a gene is first copied into a molecule known as mRNA (messenger RNA), which is then used as a template for making a protein.

Through experiments on nematode worms, Professors Fire and Mello found the mechanism, known as RNA interference, is activated when RNA molecules occur as double-stranded pairs in the cell. Double-stranded RNA activates biochemical machinery, which degrades those mRNA molecules that carry a genetic code identical to that of the double-stranded RNA. When such mRNA molecules disappear, the corresponding gene is silenced and no protein of the encoded type is made.

On 3 October, John Mather, Senior Astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard space flight centre, and George Smoot, a professor at the Berkeley University, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for their work which showed that the Big Bang was no longer just a theory in a textbook.

Using NASA's COBE satellite, the two scientists measured for the first time the spectrum of cosmic background radiation - the glowing light which is said to be a relic of the earliest phase of the Universe, dating back to 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

Scientists concluded that the distribution of radiation detected by the satellite displayed a shape in its spectrum that would be expected if the Big Bang theory were correct.

Although nearly all physicists now believe that the Big Bang happened, little evidence was available to support the theory before the COBE went into orbit in 1989 and its instruments detected the variations in the temperature of microwave radiation - anisotropy - that still suffuses all of space. This anisotropy explains how the force of gravity assembled newly formed matter from the explosion into the earliest galaxies.

On 4 October, Roger Kornberg, a professor in medicine at Stanford University in California, and son of former Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg, picked up the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work on genetic transcription. This is the mechanism whereby the information stored in the genes is copied, and then transferred to those parts of the cells that produce proteins.

Transcription is necessary for all life: without it, genetic information could not be transferred to different parts of the body, leaving organisms to die. Disturbances in the transcription process are known to be involved in many human illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation. Understanding how this process works has a fundamental importance for science.

Professor Kornberg received the SEK 10 million in prize money for creating for the first time an actual picture of how transcription works at a molecular level in the important group of organisms called eukaryotes, in which mammals like ourselves are included.

His pictures show how the new RNA-strand gradually develops, as well as the role of several other molecules necessary for the transcription process. The pictures are so detailed that separate atoms can be distinguished and this makes it possible to understand the mechanisms of transcription and how it is regulated.

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United States