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Publication Date: Wednesday, May 30, 2001

Roger Kornberg to receive Welch Award in chemistry Roger Kornberg to receive Welch Award in chemistry (May 30, 2001)

By Marion Softky

Almanac Staff Writer

One of the toughest -- and most important -- problems in chemistry today is figuring out how the information coded in DNA actually tells body cells what to do -- whether they need to become blood or bone or nerve or hair.

For 20 years of discoveries about how DNA instructs the processes that take place in each living body, Dr. Roger Kornberg of Atherton, professor of structural biology at Stanford University's School of Medicine, will receive the 2001 Welch Award for lifetime achievements in basic chemical research. He will receive the $300,000 prize in Houston October 29.

Dr. Kornberg's most recent achievements lie in determining the structure of the RNA polymerase protein, one of the most important molecules in biology. In a process called transcription, RNA polymerase copies genes from DNA into RNA, which in turn regulates creation of other cells. This knowledge should help scientists apply the results of the human genome project to understand -- and cure -- disease.

Dr. Kornberg noted that completing the DNA sequence for human beings was a marvelous scientific achievement. "But on its own, this information is silent. RNA polymerase gives it voice."

Calling Dr. Kornberg a "true luminary," Dr. Philip Pizzo, dean of the Stanford medical school, said: "His elucidation of the three-dimensional structure of the RNA polymerase protein is both elegant and important. His research is also evidence that challenges that seem impossible to some can be successes for others."

Dr. Kornberg's latest work, which should appear in the next "Science," builds on 20 years of discoveries in his Stanford laboratory. He discovered the nucleosome -- the basic unit from which chromosomes are made -- and established its role in gene regulation. He also discovered a giant complex of 20 proteins, known as the "Mediator," which regulates the transcription process.

Dr. Kornberg himself clearly has strong genes. His father is Dr. Arthur Kornberg of Portola Valley, emeritus professor of biochemistry at the Stanford Medical School, who shared the 1959 Nobel Prize for laboratory synthesis of DNA.

Roger Kornberg grew up in Portola Valley from the age of 12. He attended Portola Valley schools and Woodside High School before going to Harvard, where he graduated in 1967. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1972 and conducted postdoctoral research at Cambridge University in England, and Harvard.

After serving on the Harvard medical faculty for two years, Dr. Kornberg returned to Stanford in 1978 as a professor in the structural biology department, and served as chair from 1984 to 1992. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has received numerous awards.

Now he lives in Atherton with his wife, Yahli Lorch, a senior research associate and collaborator, and their three children, who attend local schools.

The Welch Award, bestowed annually by the Houston-based Welch Foundation, aims to foster basic chemical research for the betterment of mankind. Founded in 1954 by self-made oilman Robert Alonzo Welch, the Welch Foundation is one of the oldest and largest sources of private funding for basic research in chemistry.


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