Two Massachusetts-based molecular biologists, whoindependently discovered that genes split, will themselves splitthis year's Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

In the 1970s, Philip A. Sharp, who heads the biologydepartment at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, andRichard J. Roberts, research director at New England Biolabs inBeverly, Mass., separately and simultaneously upset theuniversal concept that genes are continuous stretches of DNA.Instead, they announced the perception that, in eukaryoticorganisms, the lengths of nucleic acid that encode proteinscome in several discrete packages, interspersed with non-coding segments.

Their "split-gene" revelation, reads the Nobel Prize citationannounced Monday by Sweden's Karolinska Institute inStockholm, "has been of fundamental importance for today'sbasic research in biology, as well as for more medicallyoriented research concerning the development of cancer andother diseases."

Besides the citation and a gold medal, this year's encomiumincludes a cash stipend of $842,000, which the new Nobelistswill share equally.

Roberts told BioWorld in an interview on Tuesday that in thefew hours since learning of the honor, he leans towardspending the money to retire his daughter's "wad of collegedebts," buy his wife a new car and put in a croquet lawn in hisgarden. His interest in this sport presumably dates from hisearly years as a native of Britain, where he graduated inchemistry from the University of Sheffield.

Asked who may have nominated him for the Nobel, Robertssaid, "I don't know for sure; one never knows for sure. But myguess is that the key person was Jim Watson."

Watson, who directs the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, wasamong the very first of a growing breed of biotechnologists(before the word existed) to win a Nobel prize. In 1962, he,Francis H.C. Crick and Maurice H.F. Wilkins shared the awardfor physiology or medicine, honoring their discovery of theDNA double-helix structure.

H. Gobind Khorana, Marshall W. Nirenberg and Robert W. Holleywon the physiology/medicine Nobel in 1968 for cracking thegenetic code.

Roberts and Sharp both worked under Watson at Cold SpringHarbor in the early 1970s. Roberts recalled that the "mostprestigious" of several meetings at which he presented his"Amazing Sequence Arrangement at the 5' Ends of Adenovirus2 Messenger RNA" was at a Cold Spring Harbor Symposium in1977.

His paper carrying this title was published in Cell in September1977. Among its journal references was a citation of apresentation by Sharp at a Cold Spring Harbor Symposium in1974.

Roberts' present research focuses on DNA methyl-transferases,to transfer methyl groups into DNA at specific sequences."That's actually just culminated in a rather nice structure PP amost unusual, totally unpredictable structure PP for one of thoseenzymes binding to its substrate," he said.

Asked what he considers the next scientific problemconfronting biotechnology that needs a solution, Robertsreplied, "Something as simple as long-range PCR (polymerasechain reaction), which in principle is only a small extension ofwhat we can presently do, would make a huge difference. Atthe moment, PCR technology allows you to amplify bits of DNAthat are maybe 3 to 5 kilobases in length. If you could do thatfor 200 kb, that would make a big difference to a lot of thingsthat we could do."

He added, "If you could sequence DNA 1,000 times morerapidly than you can now, I think that would herald an era ofdiscovery that we know nothing about."

As to public perception of biotechnology, he said, "Probably thething that concerns me more than anything else is the lack ofeducation in science. We scientists have done a pretty patheticjob in explaining to our congressmen and to the general publicwhat we do and why we do it. I would love to see us do anawful lot better."


Since the mid-1970s, when Roberts and Sharp singly developedtheir prize-winning split-gene discovery, 42 scientists haveshared the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. Exactly halfof these are household names in the biotechnology industry:

1975 David Baltimore, Howard Temin1978 David Nathans, Hamilton Smith ,Werner Arber1983 Barbara McClintock1984 Cesar Milstein, George Koehler, Niels Jerne1987 Susumu Tonegawa1989 Harold E. Varmus, J. Michael Bishop1990 E. Donall Thomas1993 Philip Sharp, Richard Roberts

During this same period, another seven biotechnologists, out of17 cited, have won the Nobel:

1980 Paul Berg,Walter Gilberet, Frederick Sangar1982 Aaron Klug1984 R. Bruce Merrifield1989 Thomas Cech, Sidney Altman

-- David N. Leff Science Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.