Interview with the 2004 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose by Joanna Rose, science writer, 9 December 2004.
The Laureates talk about their respective background and education; how they met (8:44), their work together (12:33); their reactions when the discovery was made (16.41); and their present work (22:03).
Dr Ciechanover, Dr Hershko and Dr Rose, my congratulations to the Nobel Prize and welcome to this interview. I know that you two started as medical doctors but you are in science now, and you get the prize for scientific research. How come you left medicine?
Avram Hershko: Well, I started out as a medical student, I wanted to be a doctor. And during my medical studies I studied biochemistry. That was one of the subjects that every medical student studies, so I liked it very much. I liked, you know, the whole concept of biochemistry, of looking for chemical processes in cells, so we had, we could take off one year from the studies to spend in research in the lab. I also found a very good teacher, Jacob Mager, and I wanted to spend it with him, so I did. That’s how I got involved in biochemistry. Afterwards, I finished my medical studies but already, I, after that one year, I knew that I will go to biochemistry and not to practical medicine. That’s how I started. So, it’s, it’s, like all things in life, it starts by some kind of accident or so, that was the accident, I met a subject during my studies that I liked.
And a good teacher.
Avram Hershko: And a very good teacher.
Was it also a topic, an issue that you were interested in?
Avram Hershko: No, no, not yet, not yet. Mager was interested in many subjects so that was … Actually, I continued with him after my army service as a doctor, and during the course of a couple of years I evolved in four completely different subjects, protein, synthesis, purine metabolism, and a certain disease called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, because he was interested in many things, so that gave me a very good background, a very, very, you know, very good basic background.
What about you, Dr Ciechanover?
Aaron Ciechanover: Surely you can repeat the story verbatim. The same very story, I started in the same medical school, and after four years I decided to try and taste, I fell in love with biochemistry, too.
Like ten years later.
Aaron Ciechanover: Exactly ten years later, and I also decided to taste it, and at that time at medical school they let students take one year off for medical studies, try some research, so I went into biochemistry, same very story, different mentor. And, a wonderful mentor, and I studied lipids.
Aaron Ciechanover: Not proteins at all, and then exactly, made a decision, that that’s it. But I had, because of obligations to serve in Israel in the military as a physician. I completed my medical studies, went to serve in the army, but meanwhile, in between, I was looking already for a future mentor, in biochemistry, and Avram was at the time abroad, in the University of California in San Francisco, and I got rave recommendation, that he is a great teacher and a great biochemist, and I wrote him, and he was ready to accept me, and there started this story. More or less.
So did you go to the States?
Aaron Ciechanover: No, no, he came here. He returned to /- – -/ fellow, he started a new department in Haifa, which was a new medical school, I joined him, not initially on this project, on a different one because I still had to serve in the army. It’s a little bit complicated date-wise, but basically it’s the same very story, mentorship, the same footstep, without knowing where I am going.
You will never know.
Aaron Ciechanover: I never know, but it’s basically, ten years later the same very footsteps.
Oh, that’s funny. What about you, Dr Rose? How did you get …
Irwin Rose: I have an anomalist’s story. It doesn’t, there is no precedent for this. We moved from the east coast to the town of Spokane, Washington, when I was about 13 years old, and I did not adapt very well to the, to the style of the place, and I spent most of my time in the public library. And I enjoyed the company of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, because it was the book shaped thing, in those days, you know, it was the small journal …
Avram Hershko: At the age of 13?
Irwin Rose: No, you know, like a couple of years, you know, I was very unpopular with the other students, and so I read the Journal of Biological … the small, the small Journal of Biological Chemistry, and I found an article I thought I understood. And I read it and I thought I understood it to the point where I could make some suggestions as to how it would be, the experiment might work, and then I was very satisfied with that, and then I … I didn’t spend much time in science at that point. Went into the navy, got out of the navy, tried to go to the University of California at Berkeley, but due to the failure to find the bulletin board announcing the laboratory time of organic chemistry, I couldn’t do my organic chemistry there.
So I went back to the State College of Washington and there I was influenced, I would say, by the embryology teacher, who was a very strong personality in terms of academic research, he tried to encourage his students. Then I went to the University of Chicago and there was a big shock to learn all the new kinds of things that they were teaching there, in organic chemistry and that sort of stuff, and very attractive concepts, and things began to come together in my mind as to how chemistry worked and how I might be able to exploit some of the early kinds of techniques that were being used in organic chemistry into biochemistry, which was something I was attracted to, due to my reading of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. So at that point I signed up, there was a big gymnasium, and people were signing people up for which major you were going to go into. So I said OK, I’ll be a biochemist.
So I entered into the department of biochemistry, never saw the chairman of biochemistry because he was the appointed ambassador to Britain for the United States. So I floated around in the department of biochemistry and learned some interesting things, and then I began to … I never wanted to work with a mentor, because I always wanted to have my own reputation and be free to do what I wanted to do. So I worked with the weakest people in the department. Don’t make that public. No, I don’t mention the names, but … so I did that sort of thing and that way I came to learn some more independence, and once in a while I did a good experiment, and so I had more confidence that I could do research, and so that’s how it got started.
Avram Hershko: Can I mention the story that you did your PhD or eight counts per minute or …
Irwin Rose: Oh yes, well, in those days people weren’t counting, people counted on planchettes. And you …
Avram Hershko: Puckered.
Irwin Rose: Well, it could be, depends on they were flat.
Avram Hershko: You dried them, didn’t you?
Irwin Rose: Yes, you dried them out, depending … yes, that’s right. You had to dry them out, it depends on what the compound was, but if it was trillium you had to get an infinitely thin layer so that you wouldn’t get self-absorption.
Avram Hershko: It’s common, self-absorption on a planchette.
Irwin Rose: Did you guys do that, too?
Aaron Ciechanover: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Avram Hershko: We had a counter with only three /- – -/ so we moved it like that …
Irwin Rose: Oh yeah, yeah.
Avram Hershko: … it was a big excitement.
Irwin Rose: So I wasn’t that primitive. You were doing these things in Israel, an advanced state.
Aaron Ciechanover: You came to our country.
Irwin Rose: I did. I came to Israel. But anyway, yes, so we did those things. And even if you had eight counts above background, if there were eight, there were eight. That’s right. So you could do some experiments. That’s how it worked out.
So how did you meet together?
Avram Hershko: Well, that’s another story. I got interested in protein degradation during my post-doc fellowship in San Francisco, and when I came back to Israel I continued with that, and at that time it was a very obscure field, you know. People, there were all kinds of, not too many people were interested in it. Those that were interested were not very good. So I looked for somebody, and so my first time I think I came up and I looked for somebody to spend a sabbatical with. I couldn’t find anybody that attracted me. So then I met Ernie at a meeting in 1976, one year before, before my sabbatical was due. And do you remember, we met in the breakfast, so I said can I, just began to talk …
Irwin Rose: It’s alright, I forgot.
Avram Hershko: … breakfast table, so I knew who he was, he was very well known for his work on enzyme mechanism. That I knew, but then I asked him what are you interested in, in other things? So it turned out that he was interested in protein degradation. And that was a secret, it was a secret because he never published anything on it, and I asked him how come you never published anything, and so he said there is nothing worth publishing on protein degradation. So that’s what he said.
Irwin Rose: Yeah, that was my opinion. Well, because I hadn’t done anything, you don’t say it right.
Avram Hershko: OK. Well, that’s how I remember it. And anyhow, I liked that attitude very much, and asked, I asked him can I spend my sabbatical with you? And he said yes, so that’s how it started, and then Aaron, the same year he started his PhD with me, and after my sabbatical the following, the summer after my sabbatical, Aaron joined us, and then he joined us for a couple of summers afterwards, so that’s how, that’s how the whole connection started.
But how come you pick up an obscure field in science, to work on?
Irwin Rose: Well, I’ll tell you, because when I first worked at Yale, the guy who had a lab next to me had made the original observation that there was a protein, there was an energy dependent on protein breakdown. Now, nobody believed him, but he had made some pretty strong observations that if you …
Avram Hershko: Here, we could mention names.
Irwin Rose: Yes, Melvin Simpson. He made these important observations.
Aaron Ciechanover: He hardly believed himself, because when you go into discussion on the paper, you kind of come to a convoluted argument whether it’s a direct requirement or indirect. We can do the conclusion that it’s indirect.
When was it?
Avram Hershko: 1953, so …
Irwin Rose: So I didn’t read the paper, but I had this man in the laboratory next to me and he said, he made this observation and I got very interested in it. And worked on it for, on sabbatical, and when I went to England and when I went to Israel I got mice from Mager, it turned out the same guy, but he wasn’t there at the time, and … but I never found an energy dependence on the protein breakdown. And it turns out later on that a fellow named Art Haas who had been a post doc with me, made the observation that if you’re not careful when you break cells, there’s a lysosomal enzyme that degrades the ubiquitin. So I never would have found it, you know. Somebody else had to make the observation that you could make a self-resistent that … that would show an ATP dependence on protein breakdown. It was not for me, but I did work on it earlier, and that’s the, that’s why I told you that I’d never made any important observations.
But you three work together. How does it work, to do things together?
Irwin Rose: I don’t do anything.
You do nothing? Who is the worker?
Avram Hershko: Well, that’s, first of all, that’s not true. I remember that you made some ubiquitin preparation …
Irwin Rose: I did.
Avram Hershko: Yes, and it fell on the floor, and then you collected it up from the floor … yeah, yeah. That first step is to boil the extra, because ubiquitin is heat stable, so you boiled it but then it fell on the floor, but you picked it up and it was good, yeah.
Irwin Rose: It was good, nothing could destroy it.
Irwin Rose: It was a licence only enzyme.
Aaron Ciechanover: The /- – -/ can take it, but not the floor.
Avram Hershko: But, yeah, but when I came to his lab we already had his first step, which was the fractionation, well, the reticulocyte cell-free system system was actually established in the laboratory of somebody else, Alfred Goldberg in Harvard, but they didn’t …
Aaron Ciechanover: /Inaudible./
Avram Hershko: No, no, but, yeah, but he made it first, he made it first.
Aaron Ciechanover: The first publication was from Harvard, no doubt.
Avram Hershko: But then he didn’t progress, but then he didn’t do what he should have done, which is fractionation. It’s hard to purify right away, but ATP dependent enzyme, he never found it. And what we did was fractionation and constitution, so we already had this first step of separating it into two, two fractions, fraction one and fraction two.
So during these two years between the beginning of ’77 when I write to your lab and December of ’79, when we made the breakthrough in your lab, we purified the component from fraction one, we found it a heat stable protein, and then you had a part in that, you also boiled ubiquitin, and then in Haifa we found that it gets … when we labelled it with iodine and we found it gets bound to proteins and ATP dependent reaction, but we didn’t really understand that it’s binding, its co-herent binding the substate until that summer in 1971 in the laboratory of Rose where you invited me, together with Aaron who was then my graduate student in /- – -/ who was there. 1979, 1979. So that is when, when the discovery that ubiquitin …
Irwin Rose: Shall I tell the story about the ubiquitin?
Avram Hershko: Yes. I think I have finished. So then, that’s how I remember it, and how …
Irwin Rose: OK, well, here they had a heat stable factor that was required, and they made the observation that the ubiquitin went on to proteins. And so one of my post docs went to a post doc of another student, of another faculty member at the Fox Chase Cancer Centre, and said, there was a conversation, and do you know of any examples of a protein covalently linked to a protein? And this post doctoral fellow said yes, there is in the nucleus, a protein called ubiquitin that’s covalently linked to histone. And so they rushed to look at the amino acid composition of that so-called ubiquitin, and they compared it to the amino acid composition which you had published, I guess …
Aaron Ciechanover: No, not yet.
Irwin Rose: Not yet published.
Aaron Ciechanover: But in the end it was published back to back with JBC.
Irwin Rose: No, no, no. But how did they know the conversation …
Aaron Ciechanover: No, because they knew, the end story is that the Wilkinson paper came back to back with ours on the /- – -/.
Avram Hershko: OK. Let’s not go into the detail.
Irwin Rose: Well, for some reason or other, they found confidence…
Avram Hershko: They knew that I published that.
Irwin Rose: Really, and I was not a leak.
Avram Hershko: No, no, you were not.
Aaron Ciechanover: No, he was in the lab, he was free and did this. We didn’t hide anything.
Irwin Rose: OK, you’re getting the inside story here. Now, wait a second.
I have a statement from your colleague. “At first nobody cared about your work, and those that knew something about it, they didn’t believe it.” Was it so …?
Irwin Rose: Who said that?
Avram Hershko: That was, that was Fred Goldberg, yeah.
Aaron Ciechanover: Let’s not mention names.
Avram Hershko: Oh! No, we didn’t mention names.
That citation is right.
Aaron Ciechanover: I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you a funny story. I left the lab in ’81, basically after my PhD was completed I submitted it and I went to Harvard, I went to MIT to do a post doc fellow, and Harvard carried out weekly seminars. And in this weekly seminar, one of the founders in the field of proteolysis, one of the originally, not the founder, but it doesn’t matter. A famous scientist in the field presented the weekly seminar at Harvard. I knew of him because he was our competitor for many years, and I went to hear the seminar, so I crossed the river by the bus, I took the shuttle bus that goes /- – -/ and I was sitting in the very back bench. And this was probably about two weeks before you came to visit, it was the very beginning of my, do you remember when I met you, I came to the airport to pick you up.
Avram Hershko: Yeah, yeah.
Aaron Ciechanover: And then, near me, was sitting a very famous scientist that I only later realised that his name is Arthur Dee, a very famous scientist, and after this presentation of the professor, this was only ’81 when we had like eight or nine papers already in the literature with a huge amount of information there. And he was a protein researcher and he raised his hand, I remember very well, and the other guy, when we were both /- – -/ he said, you know, I have a question to ask you. There is a fellow in Haifa by the name of Hershko, and another one with a very complicated Polish name that I cannot even pronounce, that published a series of papers on a small protein that is attached to other proteins and marks them for degradation, can you comment on it? And he basically dismissed it as an artefact.
And I don’t, I don’t criticise him, all I’m telling you it was symbolic for me enough for after eight papers in the literature, this was the spirit in the field from people who worked in the field, and there were very few. As a matter of fact, it adds to our benefit, because they left us alone for seven successive years, even after I left the lab to work out basically the entire system. The next scientist to join the field was a scientist at MIT, Alex Varshavsky, who joined in ’84, ’83, but published in ’84, and given I was there and collaborated, so for seven successive years they let us lay the entire stone down in the literature so I don’t criticise him, actually I appreciate him tremendously for letting us do it. You know, in retrospect.
But I wonder, how do you survive as a scientist when nobody believes you somehow? Nobody’s interested. You become kind of non-visible.
Irwin Rose: You’re making observations, and the observations get published, so the observations are true. Whether anybody will say that belongs to a big story like it turns out to be is not predictable, but so you don’t make claims like that. You say that this is very interesting and so on and so on and so on, and you keep following it up, and it doesn’t necessarily become the centre of attention yet, until you build a big enough story. I think that’s the way it works.
We all survive because funding for research was generous in those days, you know. It’s been less generous now, and we have a peer review system which is more critical and so I think you have to, you have to add successively to the picture you’re trying to portray. It’s not sufficient to just provide data. So I think that’s part of it. But I agree that it’s important to be left alone for a sufficient amount of time in order to be able to do it, and not feel that you’re in the middle of a big activity already, so you know, you need to do that sort of thing.
So do you think you would get support today for such work, which was kind of apart?
Avram Hershko: Well, I hope the fund /- – -/ look up your website and will hear these things. Because it’s … yeah, Joe Goldstein, you know, a Nobel Laureate and a good one, wrote a nice article about this year’s Lasker Award, in which he compared science to a sculpture by this British sculptor who had his stone, it was a huge stone of two and a half ton, on which another stone, and another stone, and another stone, and at the end is a little stone, so he said that in science there are big stones and small stones. The important science is the opposite. When you have a little stone, and on top of it you put a bigger stone and then a bigger stone. If you throw out a big stone at the beginning so there’s a lot of publicity sometimes nothing comes out of it, and the scientist, to find his little stone, on which the other stones can be built. So I recommend to read his article.
Now you find the small stones, Dr Rose, in your kitchen, as I understand it. You have a small laboratory there?
Irwin Rose: You want to talk about my kitchen?
Yeah. Your laboratory, I would say.
Irwin Rose: Well, when I retired from Fox Chase I took my spectrophotometer and a lot of my chemicals, based on a sort of suggestion of Dr … his recommendation. So I took all my chemicals and my spectrophotometer and my constant temperature bath and so forth with me to Irvine, and when the person whose laboratory I was sitting decided to retire, I had to do something with the spectrophotometer and so I found a place in my kitchen for it. And this was very convenient because it saved me a lot of time. I didn’t have to go to work every day and if I had a little experiment to do I could do it in my kitchen. So that was very good, although I’ve got a lot of chemicals that I have no use for and I’d like to take them back.
Aaron Ciechanover: Send them over, send them over.
Irwin Rose: I’ll send them over. I’ll get a box.
Avram Hershko: But I worry that you don’t have an ice machine. You need an ice machine.
Irwin Rose: No, I don’t have an ice machine. But I have a freezer and I can make ice cubes and I can break them up.
It’s kind of worrying, in science. So you can work when everything’s /- – -/ ?
Irwin Rose: Yeah, that’s right, exactly.
So are you the kind of scientists that work all day and all night long, kind of nerd scientists?
Irwin Rose: I think we all work all day and all night long. I do. I don’t have any hobbies, you know, I’m very embarrassed when people ask me what are my hobbies, I don’t have any hobbies. I mean, it’s just enough to keep up with the things I’m trying to solve. You know, I used to work on little puzzles and so on and so forth. Each puzzle requires attention and, so you get an idea. You get your ideas at different times. Sometimes your wife makes a statement and you say: aha, maybe you’re right. And so you go off to your kitchen, and do a little experiment, so you try to, that’s the way you make progress, if you continue these things. So that’s my recommendation, do not retire. Do not retire fellas.
Avram Hershko: I won’t.
Aaron Ciechanover: I’m never going to.
You worked together in the beginning, you were the graduate student of Dr Hershko, how was it to separate from each other?
Aaron Ciechanover: Well, it’s the nature of science, I think, because you know, you graduate, you go your post doctorate fellowship, and Avram was gracious enough to bring me back, but now is independent and that’s the entire idea, if you bring a young scientist back, you give him a bench, start up funds, and then you tell him now in five years, come back in five years, and show the committees that you worked for something. So actually, you know, it would be unnatural if we would have continued to work together. So, each of us is independent. Now we’re in the same institute and that’s the whole idea of children that grow up, students that become their own, scientists on their own, I think that’s the way.
Do you compete with each other?
Avram Hershko: No, there is enough to do in the ubiquitin field, we don’t feel that we had to compete. There are different aspects of the ubiquitin field. I am working on cell cycle and he works on …
Aaron Ciechanover: /- – -/. Completely different.
How is it to live in a small country with big problems and to get funds for science?
Avram Hershko: It is not easy, it is not easy. You have to know the daily tension which is of course distractive. The funds are small, some funds for science are small. Graduate students have to go to serve in the army and things like that, so it’s more difficult than elsewhere, but it’s possible, it’s possible.
And now everybody’s happy. About the Nobel Prize. So thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us, and being with us.
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