November 8, 2004

Nobel Recipient Speaks On Great Biology Ideas

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Sir Paul M. Nurse, co-recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, spoke to members of the Cornell community at the 13th Annual Ef Racker Lecture in Biology and Medicine. The lecture series, held in honor of Ef Racker, the former Albert Einstein Professor of Biochemistry, seeks to bring eminent scientists who have made important contributions in the fields of biology and medicine to Cornell. According to Prof. Anthony Bretscher, molecular biology and genetics, the organizers of the Racker lectures “strive [to] identify those individuals who embody Ef’s research interests in the molecule understanding of human disease.”

Nurse received the Nobel Prize, along with Leland H. Hartwell and R. Timothy Hunt, for his role in deciphering the control mechanisms governing the regulation of the cell cycle. His discoveries have led to a greater understanding of the progression of certain diseases in humans, especially cancer. He currently heads the Laboratory of Yeast Genetics and Cell Biology, and is the president of The Rockefeller University in New York City.

As part of the lecture series, Nurse gave a public talk entitled “The Great Ideas of Biology” on Thursday evening. Nurse began his lecture by reflecting that biology is a subject that “deals with details” and that the field of biology does not consist of “many great ideas and grand theories” when compared to physics or chemistry. Nevertheless, he proceeded to take the audience through a historical tour of what he felt were some of the great ideas of biology.

Nurse talked about evolution by natural selection, an idea which he noted was the “best known to [the] public and also the most notorious. He called the theory of Natural Selection, proven by Charles Darwin in the 1800s, the “most beautiful idea of biology, and one that I think is the greatest.”

Another important idea according to Nurse was that of the cell doctrine, which states that all living things are composed of cells, the simplest units exhibiting the characteristics of life. The doctrine is an old idea that took two-hundred years to be fully developed. It began in the 1660s, when Robert Hooke first used a microscope to look at microorganisms and continued through the 1830s when Theodor Schwann demonstrated the universality of cells in plants and animals. Nurse described the cell doctrine as a milestone in biology. “Every one of you was [once] a single cell, so you should be interested in cells,” he joked.

Nurse noted the gene and the development of quantitative genetics as another great idea of biology. He described Gregor Mendel’s experiments with pea plants in the 1800s as seminal work that refuted past theories that inheritance within offspring was the result of blending. The discovery of the gene as the basis of heredity and the existence of chromosomes later led to the development of the central dogma of molecular biology, which states that DNA encodes RNA, which in turn encodes for proteins.

In the second public lecture, held on Friday, Nurse described in detail his own work, which was the basis of his 2001 Nobel prize. The focus of his research for the past twenty five years has been to determine the mechanisms that control the cell cycle, especially in the dividing mammalian cell. His work with fission yeast led to the discovery of cyclin dependent kinases, molecules that are key regulators in the Eukaryotic cell cycle. In addition, the discovery of a cdc2 gene which encodes for additional molecules that regulate the cell’s entry into mitosis has been shown to be conserved in organisms as diverse as humans, starfish and frogs.

Nurse’s lectures were received with enthusiasm by the audience. Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics, recounted, “I still remember the great excitement when [the] Nurse lab found the role of protein kinase involvement in the cell cycle.” He further noted that “Nurse has played a major leadership role in science.”

In reflecting on his own career, as well as some of the scientific issues surrounding the recent election, such as stem cell research, Nurse acknowledged that scientists will have a “license to operate as scientists only if [the] public has trust in the scientific enterprise. We have to, as scientists, maintain a dialogue with the public, and listen to their concerns.” He noted that “sensible, unpolarized” discussion would be possible only if science, ethics, morals and philosophy all had a role in public debate.

“Science is truly revolutionary,” Nurse concluded, “[and] the next half century is going to be more exciting than the last.”

Archived article by Samira Chandwani
Sun Staff Writer