It’s that time of year again: the movers and shakers in chemistry, physics, literature, and everything in between just finished celebrating some major advancements in their respective fields.
That’s right, it’s Nobel time. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Nobel Prize, established over 120 years ago by Alfred Nobel in his will to honor those who’ve “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” Past winners have included Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a host of other names you likely know. But maybe you’re not up to speed on who won this year—or why their work was important. As it turns out, there were a couple winners with big implications for genetics, so let’s take a look.
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
This year’s prize was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young for their work describing the molecular mechanisms of our internal clock. Lifeforms around the planet, from plants to humans, are naturally in sync with the rotation of the earth. This phenomenon is referred to as the circadian rhythm. The research performed by these scientists has allowed us to understand ways in which the circadian rhythm is related to the release of hormones, control of hunger, and even physical and mental health. Furthermore, their research indicates that there is a tight link between the circadian rhythm and genetics. Accordingly, variants in specific locations of your DNA can affect your propensity to be a morning person, a night owl, or somewhere in between.
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
A picture is worth a thousand words, and now we know it’s also worth a few Nobel Prizes. Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing an imaging technique known as cryo-electron microscopy. This advanced technique supercools molecules in water, a complicated process in which molecular structures (like proteins and viruses) are surrounded by water that is then frozen so quickly that it forms a glass-like structure. By freezing the molecules in water, scientists can develop a high resolution image of the biomolecules in action.
Prior to this development, scientists could only speculate on what some proteins looked like in action. This is because older techniques weren’t able to freeze water fast enough, leading to evaporation during imaging. Without the water present, protein structures would collapse. The refinement of cryo-electron microscopy has enabled us to image the molecular machinery of life.
This technique is also contributing to the rational design and understanding of therapeutics. An analogy often used in drug development is that of a lock and key—a drug will target a specific protein in the same way that a key is only good for one lock. Some proteins change their shape when functioning, and the specificity of a drug for its target protein depends heavily on the physical structures of both. In fact, some drugs are designed to tightly fit into a unique pocket within their target protein only when the protein is in a particular shape.
By designing drugs to fit a specific protein at a specific time, researchers can be more precise with their therapeutic treatments. That requires very precise knowledge of what these proteins look like, which is where cryo-EM comes in. Cryo-EM enables researchers to pinpoint therapeutically relevant features of proteins and may soon be used to understand how genetic variants can affect the shape of a protein, and thus change the way drugs interact with different proteins.
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics
Okay, so this one isn’t directly related to genetics or DNA—but there are some interesting parallels that are worth talking about.
Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne received this year’s prize in Physics for their work in developing techniques to identify gravitational waves, a feat that was previously only dreamed of by luminaries like Einstein. These findings came out of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project, which on its own is a massive engineering accomplishment with synchronized observation facilities in Washington state and Louisiana. The LIGO team was the first to be able to detect a gravity wave, one that is thought to have been generated by a massive astronomical event that happened billions of years ago. One analogy that has been used to describe the importance of this accomplishment relates it to the human senses—it’s as if humanity could previously only smell and see, but now we can hear. Gravity waves have always been here, but now we can interface with them.
This moment feels a bit like 1869 for a geneticist, when the first nucleotide was discovered. Fast forward nearly 150 years, and advances in genetics have changed—or are poised to change—nearly every aspect of our understanding of life on Earth. There’s no telling what gravity waves will do for our understanding of the universe over the next 150 years, but there’s a good chance that the impact will be felt far beyond the field of physics.
But you don’t have to wait a century and a half to see the impact of this year’s Nobel winners. Breakthroughs like cryo-electron microscopy are already improving lives—and they’re sure to improve even more in the years to come.
See the full list of 2017 Nobel winners here.