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Six AAAS Members Join the Ranks of Nobel Laureates
Three scientists who conducted trailblazing research into how the human body destroys unwanted proteins were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Two of the scientistsAaron Ciechanover of Israel and Irwin Rose, of Californiaare AAAS members, and they joined four members of the association who won Nobels in medicine and physics earlier this week.
The 2004 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded on 4 October to a pair of American medical researchersDr. Richard Axel and Dr. Linda S. Buckfor findings first published in the early 1990s on structure and organization of the human sense of smell, described by the Royal Academy as "the most enigmatic of our senses." Buck and Axel, both AAAS members, currently work independently, Buck at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Axel at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Columbia University in New York.
"A good wine or a sunripe wild strawberry activates a whole array of odorant receptors, helping us to perceive the different odorant molecules," the Academy said in explaining their work. "A unique odour can trigger distinct memories from our childhood or from emotional momentspositive or negativelater in life. A single clam that is not fresh and will cause malaise can leave a memory that stays with us for years, and prevent us from ingesting any dish, however delicious, with clams in it. To lose the sense of smell is a serious handicapwe no longer perceive the different qualities of food and we cannot detect warning signals, for example smoke from a fire."
Each olfactory cell is highly specialized to recognize only a limited number of odors; the cells send signals to the olfactory bulb in the brain. From there, the Academy explained, the information is conveyed to other parts of the brain, where the information from several olfactory receptors is combined, forming a pattern. Therefore, we can consciously experience the smell of a lilac flower in the spring and recall this olfactory memory at other times."
Buck is just the sixth woman ever to win a Nobel in medicine or physiology in the 103-year history of the award. When contacted by a writer for the Nobel organization, she said in an interview that she was surprised by the honor.
"It's wonderful," she said. "It means that others appreciate the work that you've done; it's very gratifying, from that standpoint, and I think that all of us who are scientists do science because we love what we do. It's out of a sense of curiosity and a desire to understand how things work." And, she added: "I hope that…receiving a Nobel Prize will help women, young women, to see that it is possible to accomplish things, and I think it's very nice from that standpoint."
On 5 October, the Royal Swedish Academy announced that the Nobel Prize for Physics had been awarded to a team of three Americans-David J. Gross of the University of California-Santa Barbara; H. David Politzer of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; and Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. They first reported in 1973 the discovery of how the smallest known pieces of matterquarksare bound together by strong force, or "color force." Both Gross and Wilczek are members of AAAS.
"When analysing an everyday phenomenon like a coin spinning on a table," the Academy said, "its movements are in fact determined by the fundamental forces between the basic building blocks-protons, neutrons, electrons. In fact, about 80 percent of the coin's weight is due to movements and processes in the interior of the protons and neutrons-the interaction between quarks."
Further, the Academy said, the team's "decisive" discovery "made it possible to complete the Standard Model of Particle Physics, the model that describes the smallest objects in Nature and how they interact. At the same time it constitutes an important step in the endeavour to provide a unified description of all the forces of Nature, regardless of the spatial scalefrom the tiniest distances within the atomic nucleus to the vast distances of the universe."
Weiczek told the Reuters news agency that the prize is "very gratifying…[and] also wonderful news" for the field of theoretical physics. "It wasn't clear it was a breakthrough at the time," he said. "The theory we proposed in many ways was outlandish and we had much explaining to do."
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Ciechanover, Rose and Avram Hershko, of Israel, for research in the early 1980s that discovered "the kiss of death"a process in human cells by which a molecule called ubiquitin fixes itself to unwanted protein and escorts it to the cell's waste-disposal system.
Their research "contributed ground-breaking chemical knowledge of how the cell can regulate the presence of a certain protein by marking unwanted proteins with a label consisting of the polypeptide ubiquitin," the Academy said. "Proteins so labelled are then broken downdegradedrapidly in cellular 'waste disposers' called proteasomes."
Further, the Academy said, the research has "made it possible to understand at molecular level how the cell controls a number of very important biochemical processes such as the cell cycle, DNA repair, gene transcription and quality control of newly-produced proteins. New knowledge of this form of controlled protein death has also contributed to explaining how the immune defence functions. Defects in the system can lead to various diseases including some types of cancer."
In a telephone news conference, Rose told reporters that the prestige of winning the prize would have one particularly exciting benefit. It "will be a lot easier," he said, "to carry out the experiments I want to carry out, anywhere in the world."
Edward W. Lempinen
8 October 2004