Sidney Altman’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1989
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
My colleague, Thomas Cech, and I offer our most profound thanks to you for the honour you bestow on us today. Our colleagues, present and past, at Yale University, at the University of Colorado and elsewhere, are already aware of our indebtedness to them for their support and for their work on the biochemistry of nucleic acids which laid the groundwork for our research.
In an era when being on the “cutting edge” of one’s field is given so much weight, our colleagues may have wondered at times whether the edge we were on was perhaps the “back edge”. One of us was working with a strange organism (Tetrahymena thermophila), the other with a familiar organism (Escherichia coli) but with a strange enzyme that somehow needed to carry around an RNA molecule to do its job. Furthermore, neither of our research groups set out in search of RNA catalysis. Thomas Cech and his group initially attributed the activity of their Tetrahymena RNA to a protein contaminant, and they only slowly succumbed to the weight of the accumulated data that argued for the RNA. My group established that Ribonuclease P contained an RNA as well as protein component, and initially there was no reason to suspect that the RNA was responsible for the catalytic activity. Thus, the pathways leading to the discoveries of RNA catalysis were not as direct as one might imagine from reading about the results in textbooks.
We are very fortunate to be recognized here in such an extraordinary manner for work that we enjoy. Indeed, we are privileged to have been afforded the opportunity to study Nature and to follow our own thoughts and inspirations in a time of relative tranquillity and in a land with a generous and forward-looking government. Knowing this, we are all the more aware of the difficulties that many of our fellow scientists, humanists and artists experience. This century has already seen too many tyrannies engage in the distortion and destruction of the finest creative impulses of humankind. Our colleagues, indeed all citizens everywhere, should have the right to think in a free and open manner, to imagine and discover the previously unimagined and unknown without anticipating that there might be oppressive consequences. We are united in the hope that every individual will someday enjoy at least the intellectual privileges we have had, if not always the material advantages.