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Nobel Laureates See Link in Genetics, Big Bang

This year's Nobel Prizes are being presented in Oslo, for the Peace Prize, and in Stockholm for the others on Sunday [December 10]. Five American scientists will be accepting awards for physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine, and four of the five stopped by the Swedish embassy here in Washington to talk about their work and what it means.

John Mather of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and his colleague George Smoot of the University of California-Berkeley are getting the physics prize for their work on probing the origins of the universe. As Smoot explains, they used measurements from the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE, satellite to create a map of the infant universe just after the big bang, more than 13 billion years ago.

"What we did was, we used this light from the very early universe to make a picture of what the early universe looked like," explained Smoot. "So when you look out at the sun, you don't actually touch the sun, you see an image of the sun -- either photographic or in your eyes -- that shows you what the sun looks like. And it's what the sun looked like eight minutes ago. We look much further out. So if you look at the nearest stars it's a few years ago, if you look at the nearest galaxies it's two million years ago. We looked back to almost the very beginning of the universe and made an image of what the universe looked like at a time when it was very, very young. It's sort of in its embryonic stage, that's later on going to develop into the universe we see today."

The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine is going to Andrew Fire of Stanford University and Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts for their discovery of RNA interference -- basically a way of preventing the genetic instructions in DNA from being carried out. Fire says their work is helping researchers in the lab now, and may ultimately help treat diseases like cancer.

"For instance, if we want to shut down a gene that's responsible for a tumor progressing, you can put in the double-stranded RNA for that gene and we can ask for the tumor to do something we really want to do, which is to, for instance, regress. And that kind of work has begun in a number of different settings. I think it's going to be something like a five, 10, 15 year process, rather than walking into the drugstore tomorrow and picking up a pill of double-stranded RNA," he said.

Fire and Mello's RNA work would seem to be worlds apart from Smoot and Mather's on the origin of the universe. But the scientists find common ground in that all of them are, in very different ways, trying to answer the question of where we come from. Every culture, every tribe has a story of its origins. Sometimes it is steeped in mysticism and legend. For others it's based in astronomical observations, archaeology and biology.

For the physics laureates, who probed the origins of our universe, the link is pretty apparent. Perhaps not as obvious, though, for the RNA researchers. But Craig Mello points out that while individual species may come and go, the fundamental mechanisms of life have been around for a very, very long time.

"The thing that I find as a biologist to be one of the most incredible discoveries of modern biology is the remarkable stability of biological mechanisms over geological time, or you could even say over cosmological time, because it's that amazing, that creatures that shared a common ancestor more than a billion years ago still use the same basic genetic code to interpret sequences of their genes in order to make the proteins," said Mello. "I find that amazing."

Incidentally, if you sometimes find it a bit difficult to follow the groundbreaking work these scientists did, you're in good company. Both John Mather and Andrew Fire admit that understanding each other's work isn't easy.

"I understood what he said," said Mather, the physics laureate, "but I'm at a very much layman's level in understanding what he said about his work. But I'm thrilled that he's doing it."

"I similarly am not sure I understand all of it," added RNA pioneer Fire. "I had some training as a physicist long ago, but it's lost on me at this point to some extent. [But] I certainly have a sense of the importance of it. I mean, this is work that, as [we] said, we really need to know where we come from and it's an important thing to put ourselves and a lot of things in perspective, to know that this universe has been here a finite time and things change."

Andrew Fire, John Mather and their fellow Nobel Prize winners will be honored at ceremonies in Stockholm and Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel.