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Chemical Eye on Family Traditions
by Preston MacDougall


October 30, 2006

When asked "Hank, why do you drink?", or "Hank, why do you roll smoke?", Hank Williams Jr. has lyrically replied that he's "just carrying on an old family tradition."

In the case of the Earnhardts, you could also refer to more than one family tradition - winning and crashing to name two. Fortunately for him, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has survived more than one fiery crash on a NASCAR track, and is expected to carry on the family tradition of winning for the foreseeable future.

jpg family tradition

A family tradition that's a barrel of fun.

Recent science news has brought to the public's attention another winning family, but one with molecular traditions. Roger Kornberg, a professor in the Stanford University School of Medicine, was named as the sole recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his elegant crystallographic work that revealed - with atomic resolution - the workings of a biomolecular machine called RNA polymerase.

When cells require additional amounts of a particular protein - such as to build muscle, or bone, or even to fight disease - this enzyme essentially reads the protein's synthesis instructions that are encoded in the cell's DNA (the "gene" for that protein). This same enzyme simultaneously constructs a new, so-called "messenger RNA" molecule that relays these instructions to the parts of the cell that actually forge protein molecules. Overall, this process is referred to as "transcription" by cell biologists.

When you consider the complexity of these biomolecular machines, with thousands of atoms precisely assembled, as well as the difficulty of growing them in the pure crystalline form needed for X-ray analysis, the 20 year time span of this work seems incredibly short. Even when you factor in the large number chemists, biologists, and crystallographers that have been on the younger Kornberg team.

I say "younger" because Roger Kornberg's father, Arthur Kornberg, also studied the complex chemistry of DNA, but using older "traditional" methods of chemical analysis. In the elder Kornberg's case, it was the duplication of entire DNA molecules that occupied his lab. This process is referred to as "replication", and is essential for the transfer of genetic information from one generation to the next.

In addition to the apparently genetic disposition to studying exceedingly small things, the groundbreaking quality of their research is also a family tradition; Arthur Kornberg won the 1959 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Now retired, he too was a professor in the Stanford School of Medicine at prize-winning age.

Undoubtedly to the consternation of college advisors, not to mention journalists, during interviews the young Kornberg refers to his field of research as "biological chemistry", while the elder Kornberg still uses the term "molecular biology", even though they are researching the same general type of molecular phenomena. Others in the same field may use "biochemistry" or "chemical biology", not to mention the new favorite "biomolecular science". Youse can even call it "Johnson chemistry".

The Kornberg's are not the only ones to have a family tradition of "smashing" research and Nobel winnings. The Curies - mother, father and daughter - all won Nobel Prizes (the mother won two) for their research on radioactive elements, as well as the discovery of new ones.

One of the hazards associated with radioactive elements is their emission of X-rays and other forms of ionizing radiation. This is also why they are so useful, in products ranging from smoke detectors to CAT scanners.

As mentioned earlier, the atomic precision of the younger Kornberg's prize-winning research was made possible by a technique referred to as single-crystal X-ray diffraction. You may not be surprised to learn that this technique was pioneered by the father and son team of William and Lawrence Bragg. And, yes, they both won Nobel Prizes, in fact sharing the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics.

To round out this commentary, I should note that the younger Bragg went on to lead the prestigious Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University. It was there that he built a large and talented team of scientists, from diverse fields, to enable the first X-ray analyses of the complex molecules of life. Two of these young fellows, related only in their high ambitions, were soon to make their family names famous: Watson and Crick.


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Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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