Nobel Prize Talks: Roger D. Kornberg
This conversation with Roger Kornberg, 2006 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, was recorded during the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative events in Gothenburg. Here he discusses the importance of language, the benefits of frequent failure, and how he developed the art of focusing deeply on a problem.
Interview with 2006 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Roger Kornberg, 6 December 2006. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
Roger Kornberg discusses how the boundaries between scientific disciplines have become blurred and yet chemistry remains the “queen of all sciences”, how doubt and self-confidence interrelate in scientific research (9:17), how the evolution of scientific enquiry has developed from a generalist position to one of narrowed focus (14:57), how he visualizes the complexity of the molecular machine (21:27), what compels students to join his research team (24:25), and how terribly important it is for everyone to have a basic understanding of chemistry (27:20).
The Nobel Laureates of 2006 met at the Bernadotte Library in Stockholm, 9 December 2006, for the traditional round-table discussion and TV show ‘Nobel Minds’. The show was hosted by Sarah Montague, a presenter on the BBC ‘Today’ programme. The Laureates discuss their achievements, their inspiration and motivation, and also answer questions e-mailed by visitors to BBC.com and Nobelprize.org.
Telephone interview with Roger D. Kornberg immediately following the announcement of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 4 October 2006. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org.
[Unidentified] – Good morning, Kornberg residence.
[Adam Smith] – Good morning, my name’s Adam Smith. I’m calling from the official website of the Foundation.
[Unidentified] – Hi.
[AS] – Hi. Would it be possible to speak very briefly to Professor Kornberg?
[Unidentified] – Sure, one moment.
[AS] – Thank you.
[Unidentified] – He’s actually doing a live interview right now. Can I maybe take down your name and number and call back. Are you working on deadline?
[AS] – Yes, it’s not that we’re working on deadline but I realize how busy he must be.
[Unidentified] – So he’s taking his daughter to school in about half an hour and then he’s going straight to his office. So we’ll be there in his office for about an hour, an hour and half, and then we have a press conference at 10am.
[AS] – Of course, I can imagine.
[Unidentified] – So … actually hold on a second, I hear him coming back into the house, so let me see if I can get them.
[Roger Kornberg] – Hello.
[AS] – Hello, Professor Kornberg?
[RK] – Hang on one second please.
[AS] – Yes, of course.
[RK] – Hello.
[AS] – Hello, yes sorry, my name’s Adam Smith, I’m the …
[RK] – Yes.
[AS] – Yeah, OK. We have a tradition of recording very brief telephone interviews with Laureates as soon as they’ve been awarded.
[RK] – I’ll be glad to do that.
[AS] – That’s very, very kind of you, thank you.
[RK] – Not at all.
[AS] – First of all, needless to say, congratulations and …
[RK] – Thank you very much indeed.
[AS] – You must already be exhausted at the start of a very busy day.
[RK] – You know I was exhausted before it began, actually. I had been traveling for the previous almost 48 hours and then just got to sleep, and was almost immediately awakened by this news. And I can tell you that, besides feeling bewildered, I’m not at all tired any longer.
[AS] – Yes, you’ll be running on adrenaline for days to come I imagine.
[RK] – I’m sure, it’s extraordinary news.
[AS] – Well, it’s wonderful news. And particularly nice that it’s a family prize, that must make it special in all sorts of ways.
[RK] – Of course.
[AS] – You’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize for uncovering the structure of the cellular apparatus that gives voice to otherwise silent DNA. Is this the machinery that really holds the key to which pages of the book of life get read by individual cells, would you say?
[RK] – I think you’ve put it even better than I might have done. That’s precisely what it does. The information is one thing, but its use in the right place at the right time is ultimately decisive, and the machinery that we and many others have studied is directed towards that purpose, and our particular contribution has been analyzing the central molecule of the process and discovering the arrangement of the many thousands of atoms that make up that molecule.
[AS] – And you also found that that machinery appears to be essentially the same in all animals, plants and fungi. Did that similarity strike you as very surprising?
[RK] – The similarity goes far beyond anything we had anticipated. And I might say that when we began our work we made the decision to focus on a simple, unicellular eukaryote, baker’s yeast, and the decision at that time was one of uncertain wisdom because it did seem from the available information there might be profound differences between this fundamental process in yeast and, for example, in human cells. The extent to which, as I have said, the similarity has proved to hold between yeast and human cells is perfectly extraordinary. It begins with that central molecule to which I referred which is very nearly identical. But then after that, the larger cast of characters that assist that molecule in performing its role prove also to be remarkably alike between yeast and human cells. As recently as ten years ago, when we discovered the last members of that cast of characters, a set of about twenty that play a crucial role in the regulation of the process, it was believed for quite a long while that, at that level at least, there would be a divergence, and that humans would prove to differ fundamentally from yeast. Even at that level it has turned out that the process and the molecules responsible are virtually the same in yeast and in higher, including human, cells.
[AS] – It makes one wonder where the differences do lie really.
[RK] – So the differences of course lie in sets of genes that go beyond what is present in yeast. But the process we study is a fundamental one that applies to all genes everywhere, and it is for that reason that it is conserved.
[AS] – The transcriptional machinery you’ve described is I think the most complicated protein structure seen to date …
[RK] – Yes.
[AS] – … and just to try to give us an indication of what that apparatus is like, could you tell me how you envisage it working when you see it in your mind’s eye?
[RK] – So the machinery that we study is made up of about sixty protein molecules. Each protein molecule is made up of several thousand atoms. The remarkable thing about the machinery is the extent to which it truly functions in the way you and I imagine or think of a machine. So it has moving parts, the moving parts function in synchrony, in appropriate sequence and in synchrony with one another. They execute remarkable transitions from one stage or step in the process to the following one and part of the pleasure and the fascination of what we do has been in discovering the mechanics, the inner workings of that machine.
[AS] – Do you know what speed it works at?
[RK] – It copies approximately ten DNA, or RNA (as they are called), letters per second.
[AS] – And it must achieve an extraordinary fidelity in its copying because the room for error is very small.
[RK] – It achieves very great fidelity, but beyond that it has inherent mechanisms for proof-reading and correcting errors that may be made in the process.
[AS] – Perfect machine! Am I right in thinking that all the work that’s led up to this point has been publicly funded?
[RK] – Yes, that’s right. All the work that we have done, virtually without exception, has been funded by the National Institutes of Health of the United States. We have received some funding from other sources, principally through fellowships given to postdoctoral members of the laboratory and graduate students over the years. But the principal source of funds, and what has made it all possible, is without a doubt the extraordinary support of science by the National Institutes of Health.
[AS] – Is that also a conscious choice on your part to avoid industry funding, or is it just that there’s an abundance of public funding?
[RK] – It’s not a conscious choice. But on the other hand, what we do is so fundamental that it would not be likely to receive industry funding. It would require a very farsighted commercial organization to invest in something which will doubtless have a payoff, but only in the decades to come.
[AS] – In a way it’s rather refreshing to hear that, that one’s not rushing to application immediately with something like this.
[RK] – And I would say that I think it’s one of the finest and the highest achievements of we, collectively as people, to have been willing to make such an investment, and to have gained something from it.
[AS] – I mean, indeed, the complexity of what you’ve achieved in structural resolution must have taken enormous investment of time, and faith.
[RK] – Certainly faith because when we began it was obviously impossible, and for much of the time the problems were evidently insuperable. Also a very great investment in time in as much as the origins of the work were about thirty years ago and the work began really in earnest towards this objective about twenty years ago.
[AS] – OK, well I know that you’re on a tight schedule and I’ve taken up, I think, enough of your time.
[RK] – A pleasure to talk with you.
[AS] – We speak at greater length with the Laureates when they arrive in Stockholm in December so …
[RK] – I look forward.
[AS] – … hopefully we’ll have the chance to continue then. Thank you very much and congratulations again.
[RK] – Thank you. Bye.
[AS] – Bye, bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
See them all presented here.