The 2012 Nobel Prizes

Annual awards go to research on cells, atoms and light

David Wineland, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., adjusts a laser that’s going to be used to study charged atoms, or ions. Wineland was named a winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics. Geoffrey Wheeler

Every fall, a few scientists receive big recognition when they’re named winners of the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry or medicine. On October 8, John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering that adult cells can be forced to morph into other types of cells. The next day, Serge Haroche and David Wineland won the physics Nobel for independent experiments related to light and matter. And the day after that, Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka won the Nobel in chemistry for showing how cells use special molecules called receptors to communicate.

Each prize, shared between the winners in that category, brings a cash award of about $1.2 million. That’s not bad, though the award may come for work the scientists had done decades earlier.

Gurdon, from the University of Cambridge in England, began his research more than 50 years ago with a basic question: “Do all our cells have the same genes?” To find out, he removed the nucleus — the part of the cell that contains DNA, or genetic information — from cells in the intestine of adult frogs. He inserted a nucleus into an egg cell, a cell needed to produce offspring — in this case, tadpoles. The egg developed normally, indeed yielding a tadpole. The biologist published the findings in 1962. At the time, he concluded that the experiment showed that the DNA from the adult cell had all the information needed to make other cells. Those findings paved the way for cloning experiments, beginning in the 1990s (like the one that produced Dolly, the first cloned sheep).

More than 40 years later, Yamanaka was working at Kyoto University in Japan. He discovered another way to reprogram adult cells. In an embryo, some types of cells are like blank slates; they have the ability to grow into any kind of cell. These cells are referred to as pluriponent stem cells. Scientists used to believe that once a pluripotent stem cell matured into a particular cell — like a bone cell or muscle cell — it would stay that way until it died. But Yamanaka, like Gurdon, showed that’s not true. Yamanaka demonstrated that mature cells can be changed back into those blank-slate stem cells, full of potential. Today, scientists around the world are exploring possible ways to use pluripotent stem cells to treat disease.

The physics award went to two men who independently worked on closely related experiments that showed how light and matter interact. Both scientists studied photons, which are particles of light, and atoms, which are the basic units of matter. Working at Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, Haroche bounced photons between two mirrors and then used atoms to study the light. At the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., Wineland trapped ions, which are charged atoms (meaning they had a positive or negative electric charge to them). He then probed those with laser light. Both scientists’ work is particularly important to a field of physics called quantum optics.

“I use atoms to study photons and he uses photons to study atoms,” Haroche said in an interview for the Nobel Prize committee’s official website.

Unlike the other pairs of scientists, winners of this year’s chemistry prize did work together, at least for a time. Lefkowitz works at Duke University. He started his research in the late 1960s and brought Kobilka onto his Duke team in the 1980s. Kobilka has since moved on to Stanford University. The two focused on a class of cellular features known as G-protein–coupled receptors. These molecules sit on the cell membrane, which is the border between the inside of the cell and the outside world. G-protein–coupled receptors identify what’s going on outside the cells — by identifying hormones or odors, for instance — and then communicate that information to the biological systems in the cell’s interior. Humans have hundreds of these receptors.

“It’s like discovering the phone system in the United States if you didn’t know the phone system existed,” Jack Dixon told Science News. Dixon is the vice president and chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md. He’s familiar with the work because his organization has helped fund Lefkowitz’s studies.

Today, many widely available medications use these receptors to treat heart disease, diabetes and other medical problems.

Kobilka told Science News that even though progress was slow in his field, all of his hard work was worth the struggle.

“Being a scientist is a lot of fun, even though it is delayed gratification and you fail a lot.”

Think you’re not good enough to win a Nobel one day? You never know.

In a news conference held shortly after Gurdon learned he had won this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine, the scientist noted, “I went to school where you did no science until the age of 15.” And his first attempts were not a success.

In fact, his schoolmaster wrote a report suggesting Gurdon had no future in science. The report read: “Several times he has been in trouble, because he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous…it would be sheer waste of time.”

I guess Gurdon proved this teacher wrong!

Power Words

physics The scientific study of matter and energy, which includes studying forces and radiation.

chemistry The branch of science that deals with the identification of the substances of which matter is composed.

embryo An animal in the early stages of growth.

photon A particle that represents the smallest unit of light or other electromagnetic radiation.

stem cell A cell of a multicellular organism that is capable of giving rise to different cell types in the body. Some stem cells are pluripotent, which means they can give rise to any type of cell.

DNA A molecule that carries the genetic information in a cell.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Health & Medicine