Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, known for his invention of dynamite and accumulation of 355 patents. Upon his death in 1896, he left today’s equivalent of $265 million to fund the Nobel Prizes, rewarding and recognising those individuals whose work has greatly benefitted mankind.
The 2015 awards are for Physics, Chemistry and Medicine/Physiology, and are as follows:
(The Nobel Prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine and Literature and the Prize in Economic Sciences are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden. Source: http://www.nobelprize.org/ceremonies/)
Awarded to: Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar (equally splitting the prize)
For their work on: the mechanistic studies of DNA repair.
DNA is the molecule that essentially encodes life itself. Made from strands of a combination of just four repeating molecules, forming a double helix, they are translated into the entire variety of proteins found in every living organism – from muscle tissue, to the enzymes used to detoxify our blood – and everything in between.
Because the code held within our DNA is so crucial for life, if any damage is done to it, it can be devastating. Damage can occur as part of cell replication, where a cell essentially splits in two, after duplicating your entire genome. With the sheer numbers of ‘codes’ to copy, there are bound to be some mistakes! Also, DNA can become damaged by certain chemicals and radiation. Considering the number of times our cells duplicate, the number of codes in our DNA, and the chemicals and radiation (think UV from the sun) we are exposed to, the potential for DNA damage is high. DNA being damaged can lead to cancer, so why isn’t cancer more common?
Thankfully each of our cells has mechanisms to repair damage done to our DNA. This year’s Chemistry Nobel Prize winners determined the molecular basis behind these mechanisms. Their work not only furthers our understanding of how our cells work and repair themselves, but has practical applications as offering possible new treatments for disease, most significantly reversing the DNA damage that leads to the formation of cancer.
Physiology or Medicine
Awarded to: William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura (sharing half of the prize), and Youyou Tu (receiving the other half of the award).
For their respective work on: a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites; and a novel therapy against Malaria.
This year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine , was split between two similar strands of research, both regarding different kinds of parasitic infection. Campbell and Ōmura shared half of the prize for tackling infections caused by parasitic worms, estimated to infect a third of the world’s population. Although many of you may not have heard of such parasites, they can cause debilitating, deadly, and unfortunately neglected tropical diseases. Elephantiasis is characterised by extreme swelling in the limbs, caused by an obstruction of the lymphatic system by the parasitic worms. River blindness is another parasitic disease which can infect the eyes and eventually cause blindness.
Campbell and Ōmura acted as biological ‘tag-team’ of sorts. Ōmura investigated the family of soil bacteria Streptomyces, to find promising antimicrobials against parasitic worms. Once a shortlist was produced, Campbell took the potential antimicrobials and tested their efficacy. Their combined work has led to an entirely new class of antimicrobials to kill parasitic worms.
The roundworm research was the ‘lower profile’ work of the two awarded, with Tu receiving the other half of this year’s prize for her work on the well-known disease malaria. Malaria is a single-celled parasite transmitted via mosquito bites, and is well known for being easily-spread and deadly. Tu’s work led to the discovery of Artemisin, a novel anti-malarial drug, inspired by traditional Chinese herbal remedies. The use of Artemisin has been linked to a severe reduction in new malaria cases in some regions.
Awarded to: Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald (equally splitting the prize).
For their work on: the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass.
Neutrinos are subatomic particles spread throughout the universe. They are the second most common particle in the universe, after photons (light particles), and come in three varieties. The variety you are most likely to have heard of are electrons, and the other two types are muon and tau particles. Takaaki and Arthur both completed their work in underground neutrino observatories, in the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan, and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada, respectively.
These detectors, and the teams working with them, are situated underground to be able to detect neutrinos without interference found at the surface. Because they have a very small mass and hardly interact with other particles of matter, neutrinos are very difficult to detect. However the detectors have large tanks of water, surrounded by light sensors. On the rare occasion when a neutrino hits an atom in this tank of water, a tiny flash of light is produced, and is picked up by the many light detectors.
Yet the number of neutrinos being detected did not meet the predicted expectations, based on the number of neutrinos that theoretically should have been produced by stars such as our sun. Both of the winners, in separate announcements several years apart, announced that the varieties of neutrino that they had been detecting, at the Sudbury and Super-Kamiokande detectors, were different to what they had predicted. They both suggested that their predictions of the neutrino’s identities when they left the sun were correct, however that these identities ‘flipped’ identity somewhere between their release and detection.
This not only explained why the number of neutrinos being observed did not match expectations, but also indicated something far more important – that neutrinos have mass. This completely contradicted the standard model of physics, having implications on theories about the expansion of the universe.
This year’s Nobel Prize winners represent exactly what Alfred Nobel wanted, with research representing ‘the greatest benefit to mankind’, with the possibility to positively impact upon everybody’s lives.