After decades spent unraveling the secrets of human DNA, Harvard alum Roger D. Kornberg ’67 received the Nobel Prize last week for uncovering the crystal structure of the protein necessary to make DNA more than just a blueprint.
Kornberg, who is currently a professor at Stanford University, presented a frame-by-frame view of RNA polymerase interacting with DNA——a conversion that leads to the construction of proteins necessary for life.
Kornberg’s discovery, published in the journal Science in 2001, showed in atomic detail the chemical construction of RNA polymerase, a protein complex made of 12 long chains of amino acids with a mass about 10 times that of average protein.
To find the structure of large proteins such as RNA polymerase, scientists have to purify them, crystallize them, and then use x-ray crystallography to visualize the structure, according to Jianhua Fu, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Cornell.
Fu worked with Kornberg at Stanford and authored one of the scientific papers cited by the Nobel Prize committee.
Fu said Kornberg used interdisciplinary techniques involving biology, chemistry, and physics to visualize the RNA’s structure in a huge scientific effort that took eight years to complete.
“[Kornberg] is the conductor, I may be playing the violin, but he understands the music, and what we should do at what time,” Fu said in an interview this weekend.
“Roger Kornberg really slayed the dragon,” said Erving Professor of Chemistry Gregory Verdine. “He solved a very large problem in transcription, and showed the structure of RNA polymerase poised to do transcription.”
Kornberg said in an interview with The Crimson last night that when he enrolled in Harvard in 1963, he had little desire to break out of the shadow of his father, Arthur Kornberg, the winner of the 1959 Nobel Prize for medicine.
Though he began his studies as an English Literature concentrator, Kornberg said, “In the back of my mind, there was no serious doubt that I’d be going to graduate school in chemistry.”
As a first year, he tried to enroll in a series of high-level chemistry courses, but he was not immediately accepted because he had never studied calculus.
“What I gained at Harvard was extraordinary grounding in the physical sciences,” said Kornberg, who eventually took both Chemistry 20—which is still offered at Harvard today—and the Chemistry 11/12 series.
“Kornberg had an off-scale intellectual curiosity,” said Nobel Laureate and Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Elias J. Corey, who taught Kornberg during his sophomore year. “I remember first noticing the way his eyes would light up in a lecture.”
According to Corey, Kornberg was at the very top of his high-powered chemistry class, earning one of only two or three A’s awarded.
Kornberg said that his interactions with friends who were “unbelievably talented in mathematics and physics” were instrumental in driving and deepening his learning.
“I went to the same courses with them and I tried to keep up with them,” he said, adding that learning from them “gave me the penchant for rigor and precision in science.”