The four Laureates that attended the symposium were:
John Mather and George Smoot who shared the Nobel Prize in physics for "their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation." In essence, they provided the first concrete evidence that supported the Big Bang Theory. The other major accomplishment was the first "baby picture" of the nascent universe about 375,000 years after the Big Bang. There was a surprising amount of uniformity, but there were important differences in radiation intensity/density that suggested the formation of stars and galaxies.
Craig Mello and Andrew Fire who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "for their discovery of RNA interference - gene silencing by double-stranded RNA." RNA interference has revolutionized the way that scientists examine gene function in a variety of organisms including plants, fungi, and animals.
Each winner was invited to speak in turn about his work and then entertained questions from the small crowd. John Mather thought that studying the Big Bang would lead to greater understanding of our own place in the universe. After all "our bodies are nothing more than the recycled insides of stars."
George Smoot said that the Big Bang is such a well-known theory now across the globe. He even said it might be the first "creation story" that the world truly shares. The Big Bang attempts to describe how all the matter we see came into existence from what could possibly have been a tiny quantum fluctuation that expanded into the universe we see today. I recognize that his "creation story" comment is probably controversial in the United States, but I really thought it was one of the better statements of the day. It crosses all religious boundaries and attempts to explain what we see around us.
What is doesn’t do, quite admittedly, is address what happened before. Many believe that the Big Bang erased all evidence of what occurred before, so it would be difficult to answer that question. When asked what others in the US might think about the "creation" statement, Smoot replied, "Well, not everyone is rational." He thinks there is a greater appreciation for science in the international community. He hoped that enlightenment would prevail over irrationality (NOTE: he specifically wasn’t making a Dawkins like negative statement about the value of religion! He was referring to creationists in particular). As an example, he said he was thrilled when a more "evidence-based" "CSI "replaced "The X Files."
Mather mentioned that one of the more interesting realizations after being notified about the win was that he basically now had a new job: talking to people. He now feels obligated to be a spokesperson for science and to communicate to the general public. I really thought it was an amazing realization and I wish more scientists would have a similar epiphany without the need of winning a Nobel Prize.
Andrew Fire and Craig Mello did a great job of explaining in layman terms the importance of the RNA interference discovery. The discovery was based on observations in other systems, such as Neurospora, that could not be explained by the gene control models at that time. What they found was that cells have a mechanism to recognize and then chop up long stretches of double-strand RNA intermediate (not something normally found in cells). The small pieces are then used to specifically target genes with an identical sequence. Many scientists now believe this is an ancient anti-viral pathway. It must be ancient because it arose in an organism that was an ancestor to plants, fungi, and animals.
It is the ability of the small RNA pieces to very specifically target gene expression that is exploited in many labs these days. It allows scientists to better dissect the functions of a specific gene. This was technically challenging even five years ago, but has become a rather powerful method in many labs across the globe.
Craig Mello said that understanding this ancient mechanism helps us to prepare for the future. They both stressed that this huge breakthrough was the result of a strong basic research program. You have to remember that this was originally described in Neurospora and plants, not something you would immediately think would be beneficial to human well-being. It wasn’t developed with a specific purpose in mind.
Craig also took the opportunity to point out that the ancient history of this mechanism also means that biological mechanisms can be incredibly stable over millions of years "if we don’t screw it up." He called upon humans to find equilibrium with the world around us so that we can live in a compatible way with the environment. Humans need to adapt this "deep time" concepts and start planning for longer than four years at a time. I chuckled when he made one of only a few political statements of the day.
One questioner then asked if many organisms share such similarities, what then makes humans unique? Mello and Fire both said, "surprisingly little." There is no obvious reason why we are the animals that we are. There are no striking differences between our DNA and that of our closest primate relatives. This should actually make humans realize just how related we are to all the other creatures that inhabit this planet. Our greater appreciation of this may make us better stewards of the Earth.
Another person in the audience questioned the usefulness of RNA interference for therapeutic reasons. Neither Fire not Mello thought it would have an immediate impact on "curing all diseases." Fire noted that when the first monoclonal antibodies were generated, many thought it would instantly revolutionize disease treatment, but that didn’t happen. It took another 20 years of research before the first effective monoclonal antibody was approved for a treatment. Mello also pointed out that the real potential of RNA interference isn’t the use of the technique in treatments, but in its ability to uncover gene functions. Understanding gene function will possibly lead to numerous other treatments and breakthroughs...in other words, possibly identify novel drug targets that can be used in more conventional drug screens.
All the scientists were asked what was the reason for their interest in science. All had similar stories of being young boys and just asking: "why?" They feel that the strength of the US academic environment is to let students pursue their interests. They all also cited a strong family influence and support. They feel that getting interested in science is easy, but staying interested is hard in our society. Knowledge is rarely a commodity these days. With few exceptions, scientists aren’t celebrities. Students need to see the benefits and rewards of science.
By the way, if you happen to be near the new Swedish Embassy in DC, it is worth a stop into the House of Sweden for a quick look around. It is an amazing building right down by the river on K St.
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