Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Professor Bo G. Malmström of the Royal Academy of Sciences

Translation from the Swedish text

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The body and soul of man is the most complex and refined chemical machine that we know. Even the simplest forms of life, for example bacteria, are almost immeasurably intricate systems compared to the dead matter that we find on our Earth and out in the rest of the Universe. Modern biology has taught us that there is no vital force, and living organisms consist wholly of dead atoms. This does not mean that it is desirable, or even possible, to try to reduce all problems of biology to biochemistry. To understand our own place in the Universe we also need the softer data provided by the social sciences and, not least, by literature. But the intimate relationship, seen in this century, between fundamental research in biochemistry and medical progress has demonstrated that it is not solely to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of the biochemist that we ought to try as far as possible to reach a description of life processes in chemical, molecular terms.

The machinery of life is made possible by a unique interplay between two groups of biological giant molecules, nucleic acids and the proteins, in the form of enzymes, the orchestra which plays the various expressions of life, motility, feeling, reproduction etc. DNA is the carrier of the genetic traits in the chromosomes of the cells, and it governs the chemical machinery by determining which enzymes a cell shall manufacture. We know through investigations which have earlier been awarded with Nobel Prizes, that the sequence of the building blocks in DNA, called nucleotides, determines the structure of a particular enzyme that the cell produces. The investigators who have been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, Paul Berg, Walter Gilbert and Frederick Sanger, have through their methodological contributions made it possible to penetrate into further depth in our understanding of the relationship between the chemical structure and biological function of the genetic material. Berg was the first one to construct a recombinant-DNA molecule, i.e. a molecule which contains part of DNA from different species, e.g. genes from a human being combined with part of a bacterial chromosome. Berg has also used his method to analyze the chromosome of a virus in considerable details.

Gilbert and Sanger have independently developed separate methods for the determination of the exact sequence of the building blocks in DNA. Gilbert has in addition studied those parts of DNA in a bacterial chromosome which control the transcription of the genetic message in the cell. Sanger has, for example, determined the complete nucleotide sequence for a small virus, whose DNA still consists of not less than 5,375 building blocks.

It was the very research to be awarded today, which made a Swedish newspaper a couple of years ago have the headline “God knows which monsters the scientists have in their test tubes”. How can the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences reconcile its choice with the will of Nobel, which states that awards should be given for contributions which have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind? The recombinant-DNA debate was started by the scientists themselves, after an initiative from Berg, warning for possible dangers with the new technique. Continued research has, however, shown that the concern for hypothetical risks has been unwarranted. The recombinant-DNA technique is instead, together with methods for the determination of nucleotide sequences, an extremely important tool to widen our understanding of the way in which the DNA molecule governs the chemical machinery of the cell. The results of the three investigators has already given benefit to mankind, not only in the form of new fundamental knowledge but also in the form of important technical applications, e.g. the production of human hormones with the aid of bacteria. In a longer perspective the methods of Berg, Gilbert and Sanger should become important means in our efforts to understand the nature of cancer, as in this disease there is a malfunction in the control by the genetic material of the growth and division of a cell.

Drs. Berg, Gilbert and Sanger,

I have tried to put your fundamental contributions to the chemistry of the genetic material in the perspective of a biochemical concept of life. In particular, I have mentioned that you, Dr. Berg, constructed the first recombinant-DNA molecule and have applied your technique to the study of a viral chromosome. I have mentioned that you, Drs. Gilbert and Sanger, independently developed separate methods for the determination of the sequence of the nucleotide blocks in DNA, and have used these techniques, for example, to investigate viral and bacterial DNA. It is for these pioneering contributions that the Royal Academy of Sciences has decided to award this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry to you together with Dr. Berg.

Drs. Berg, Gilbert and Sanger,

On behalf of the Royal Academy of Sciences I wish to convey to you our warmest congratulations, and I now ask you to receive your Prizes from the hand of His Majesty the King.

From Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1971-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Forsén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1980

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