This Day in Jewish History / A Man Who Glimpsed the Secrets of Cellular Genesis Is Born

Roger Kornberg won a Nobel for imaging the processes by which our genes turn into activity cellular building blocks.

April 24, 1947, is the birthdate of Roger Kornberg, the Stanford University biochemist who won the 2006 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his research on the transcription of genetic information within the cell.

Kornberg is one of seven Nobel recipients whose father was also a winner of the prize: In his case, his father, Arthur Kornberg, worked in the same field, being awarded the 1959 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (together with Severo Ochoa) for his discovery of DNA polymerase, the enzyme that builds DNA.

Roger David Kornberg was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where both his father and his mother, the former Sylvy Ruth Levy, also a biochemist, worked together at Washington University. He is the oldest of three sons: Thomas, born in 1948, is a developmental biologist, and Kenneth, born in 1950, is an architect who specializes in designs for bioscience laboratories.

Kornberg, who has said that his interest in chemistry developed during high school rather than as a direct result of his home environment, attended Harvard for college and earned his Ph.D. in chemistry at Stanford University, in 1972. After several years as a fellow at the Center for Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, England, he became a professor of structural biology at the Stanford medical school in 1978.

Kornberg’s closest professional collaborator is also his wife, Yahli Lorch, a Hebrew University-educated Israeli (her late father, Netanel Lorch, was a diplomat and historian, as well as Knesset secretary). They and their three children spend several months each year in Jerusalem.

For some 20 years, Roger Kornberg labored at devising a means of photographing the actual process by which eukaryotic cells (cells with both a nucleus and a membrane, which are common to everything from micro-organisms to humans – everything except bacteria and viruses), copy and transfer the relevant genetic information from their DNA to the outer reaches of the cell, where proteins are built. Proteins are in turn the building blocks of additional cells.

Using X-ray crystallography and simple yeast cells, Kornberg and his colleagues – and he has always been consistent in stressing the group effort involved in his work – were able to create freeze-frame, three-dimensional images of RNA polymerase II, the protein that selects the information to transcribe from the double-stranded nuclear DNA to the single-stranded messenger RNA, which in turn codes the information to build proteins.

Understanding the process of transcription has relevance for learning about a whole host of medical disorders, as well as application in stem-cell research, which has substantial therapeutic applications.

During his time in Jerusalem each year, Kornberg not only serves as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University, but is also a member of the advisory committee of the Israeli Center of Research Excellence, a body working to improve the quality of academic research here. In an interview with Haaretz in 2012, he warned that Israel is not investing nearly enough money or effort in maintaining the level of its scientific and technological research, and that politics was diverting money to other less important “national projects, like the support for the religious and the construction and support of settlements.”

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