Lying between your genes and you are molecular machines that allow the otherwise silent information wrapped-up in your DNA to speak. Working in turn to select, transmit, read and decipher the DNA code, they drive the production of all the components needed for life.
Roger Kornberg’s research focuses on the earliest phases of this process, during which DNA is packaged into accessible forms and chosen segments are then converted into the messenger molecules that carry the instructions on towards the next stage. His painstaking observations of the structures of the molecular complexes involved in these operations, and his success in searching for new pieces of the puzzle, are giving us a developing picture of the elegant cellular machinery that controls which pages of the book of life are to be read.
His studies of this process have extended over thirty years, with many milestones of discovery along the way, culminating more recently with his discovery of the intricate details of one of the most complicated molecular assemblies ever seen. No less than sixty different protein molecules function together to perform the transcription process, during which DNA is converted into messenger RNA molecules. The apparatus he has been able to study, which not only builds new molecules but also checks them for accuracy and corrects for errors along the way, is taken from a ‘model’ organism often used by cell biologists, simple baker’s yeast. However, the cast of characters building these machines turns out to be extraordinarily similar in all animals, plants and fungi, and what he has observed in yeast appears to hold true for all eukaryotic, or higher organisms, including humans.
Roger Kornberg’s father, Arthur Kornberg, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1959 for discovering how our cells synthesize DNA. Only the sixth ever father/son pair to win a Nobel Prize – genes clearly run in the family.