And the Nobel goes to...

Discoveries that matter Manipulation of living cells, the connection between light and matter, decoding the communication system that the human body uses to send messages to cells...these are the three breakthroughs that have won the Nobel Prize for Physiology, Physics and Chemistry respectively.

1 Regenerative medicine: The discovery that has won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this year concerns the manipulation of living cells, and lies at the heart of the techniques for cloning animals and generating stem cells, the primitive cells from which the mature tissues of the body develop.

Two scientists who were awarded the Nobel helped lay the foundation for regenerative medicine, the hotly pursued though still distant idea of rebuilding the body with tissues generated from its own cells. They are John B Gurdon of the University of Cambridge in England and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan. Gurdon was the first to clone an animal, a frog, and Yamanaka discovered the proteins with which an adult cell can be converted to an egg-like state.

Gurdon’s discovery came in 1962, when he produced living tadpoles from the adult cells of a frog. Gurdon’s technique was to extract the cell nucleus, containing the frog’s DNA, from a mature intestinal cell and inject the nucleus into a frog egg whose own nucleus had been removed. The egg was evidently able to reprogramme the introduced nucleus and direct its genes to switch from the duties of an intestinal cell to those appropriate to a developing egg.

Working with mice, Yamanaka discovered in 2006 that the reprogramming can be accomplished by just four specific gene control agents in the egg. The agents, known to biologists as transcription factors, are proteins made by master genes to regulate other genes. By injecting the four agents into an adult cell, Yamanaka showed that he could walk the cell back to its primitive, or stem cell, form.

Stem cells generated by this method, known as induced pluripotent cells, or iPS cells, could then be made to mature into any type of adult cell in the body, a finding with obvious potential for medical benefits.

Nicholas Wade

2.Light and matter: The Nobel for Physics has been awarded for the discovery that deals with the relations between light and matter. Two physicists who developed techniques are Serge Haroche of the College de France and the Ecole Normale Superieure, in Paris, and David J Wineland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado.

Their work, the academy said, enables scientists to directly observe some of the most bizarre effects, like the subatomic analogue of cats who are alive and dead at the same time, predicted by the quantum laws that prevail in the microcosm, and could lead eventually to quantum computers and super accurate clocks.

Haroche and Wineland have approached the dance between matter and light from opposite sides. Haroche traps photons in a mirrored cavity whose walls are so finely polished that one photon will bounce back and forth for a tenth of a second – an eternity in atomic physics – before leaking out or being absorbed. Then he sends in a single atom, as a spy, to interact with the light.

Wineland’s work has focused on the material side of where matter meets light. Wineland and his colleagues trap charged beryllium atoms, or ions, in an electric field and cool them with specially tuned lasers so that they are barely moving, which is another way of saying they are very, very cold.

Dennis Overbye

3. Finding receptors: Work that concerns deciphering the communication system that the human body uses to send messages to cells – for example, speeding the heart in times of danger has won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year. The winners are Robert J Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian K Kobilka of Stanford University. Scientists had already known that adrenaline triggered the body’s fight-or-flight reflex, but it was also known that adrenaline never entered the cells.

The research of Lefkowitz and Kobilka identified receptors on the surface of the cells that sense the presence of adrenaline and set off actions within the cell. Many such different receptors, known as g-protein coupled receptors, reside on the surface of cells reacting to a host of hormones and neurotransmitters.

Members of the Royal Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prizes, said half of all drugs target such receptors.


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