Not long after the colloquium on the Fields Medal work, we had a joint presentation by three colloquium speakers on the topics of the three science prizes awarded from the good folks in Stockholm this year. This was another very popular Monday talk, with people from various other departments joining us, given the topics being discussed. The speakers talked about the science of the prizes, and also reflected upon how it drives or interfaces with future research, perhaps their own research program.
First up was Lin Chen, of Chemistry and Molecular and Computational Biology. He told us about the Chemistry prize, awarded to Roger Kornberg, â€œfor his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcriptionâ€.
Starting out by reminding us about the basic chain of relationships within organisms concerning the movement of genetic information, (the “Central Dogma”) he explained the complex problems involved in eukaryptoc transcription, the process by which genetic information is copied from DNA to RNA in a large class of organisms that includes humans.
He then went on to explain the multi-faceted contributions of Kornberg, which uncovered the mechanisms of transcription, which involves rather intricate signalling at various stages, involving molecules which needed to be identified and characterised. This is the heart of what is called molecular biology: it’s sort of the particle physics of the program of research in Biology, in a sense.
He also developed techniques for visualising the structure of some of the molecules involved, which results in extremely useful (and beautiful) schematics.
Next was Elena Pierpaoli, talking about the Physics prize (John C. Mather and George F. Smoot, â€œfor their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiationâ€.).
I already talked about her and her contribution here, the prize here, and there are several sites discussing the their work and the prize’s significance in more detail, such as here and here. Of course, the Nobel site itself has a splendid detailed description here.
Then we had Gage DeKoeyer Crump, from the Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, Keck School of Medicine, over on the Health Sciences Campus at USC. He talked about the Physiology/Medicine prize, which was awarded to Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello for their discovery of â€œRNA interference â€“ gene silencing by double-stranded RNAâ€.
Gage described the discovery – that is often referred to as a revolution in the field – of how double-stranded RNA can be used to interrupt the flow of genetic information, allowing one to shut off very specific genes in a system. This provides an amazingly potent and precise tool for research (you can selectively determine the effect of individual genes in a system) and ultimately for the treatment of genetic diseases. The best description I can find of this all is on the Nobel website, here.
But then it was not over. The point of the exercise was to engage the audience more than usual, and so we then had a really great question and answer session with all three speakers at the end, for about 20 minutes. This led to a great deal of interaction between the speakers and the audience, on topics ranging from the overlap between two of the topics, through the Nature of the Big Bang, to the different sociologies of the field. Another reason I liked this colloquium -this was unexpected- was that all three faculty who presented have just arrived at USC this year, and so it was sort of a nice introduction to some of our colleagues. (I find myself wondering if this fact contributed to me being able to find three speakers to do this with only ten days’ notice – they have not been here long enough to learn to say “no”. Excellent!)
Very interestingly, Gage Crump had pointed out in some detail the nice bit of science that had happened along the way… The actual controls for some early experiments in the area of RNA research actually gave puzzling signals… There was a lot of confusion about what was going on with RNA in gene knockout. You could see some of its action in some situations, and there was some dependence on using sense vs anti-sense single-stranded RNA in this way, but it was really not clear what was going on, especially when both sense and anti-sense were involved. (“Sense” refers to the orientation of the strand as compared to that of the messenger RNA involved in the transcription process). In fact, the role of RNA in knockout was really considered to be not hugely significant, by most. So in some control experiments, they were actually responsible for producing a bit of an anomaly, including in published paper. What eventually turned out was that the controls themselves were trying to tell us something about the underlying mechanism. What was assumed to be going on (or not going on) was incomplete.
Lin Chen amplified this in an extended response to one of the questions, addressing the young people directly. He pointed out that there are several known examples of this happening in Biology and Chemistry, some cases eventually leading to Nobel Prize work. He stressed (and I paraphrase) that if you’re doing some experiments and your controls are persistently displaying anomalous results, don’t throw that experiment away! It is possible that you are right on the edge of known science, and there might well be an opportunity there.
That’s a really good lesson.
[Update: our Librarian, Sara Tompson, has constructed a partial bibliography for this (and other) talk's material. It is here. Scroll down to October 16th.]