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Nobelists at the Library of Congress: Scientific Collaboration and Funding Key to Big Discoveries
Scientific collaboration and basic research funding are key factors in making big discoveries, emphasized Nobel Laureates John Mather and Craig Mello during a public discussion on the origins of life and the universe at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Mather and Mello delved into the details of their work as scientists in cosmology and genetics, respectively, highlighting both the unwavering commitment required to reach their scientific goals and the recognition it brought them at Nobel proceedings in Stockholm last December.
The 26 July event was jointly sponsored by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology; the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program; and the Library of Congress's John W. Kluge Center; and its Science, Business and Technology Division. AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner and Carolyn Brown, director of scholarly programs at the Library of Congress, welcomed the audience and speakers.
Mather, a joint recipient with George F. Smoot of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics, discussed "the history of the universe in a nutshell." Beginning with his own history, Mather described how growing up on an agricultural research station in rural New Jersey began a lifelong passion for science. He was intrigued at a young age by the International Geophysical Year and U.S.-Soviet Union Space Race of the 1950s, and the realization that still so little was known about the cosmos.
"The whole entire observable universe, if you run the movie backwards through time, could have fit inside a golf ball" during the time of the Big Bang, he marveled. "As depicted in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, 13.7 billion years ago there was a 'horrendous space kablooey.' It turns out that sometimes disaster is good for you. In this case, it led to the universe expanding and cooling and eventually supporting life."
An astrophysicist, Mather has spent his entire career at NASA, starting work in 1976 on an explorer satellite to find and measure the primordial heat radiation in space. The Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) was the first satellite built for the purpose of studying cosmology and was launched in 1989. As principal investigator for the Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer on COBE, Mather confirmed the Big Bang theory with extraordinary accuracy by showing that cosmic microwave background radiation has a blackbody spectrum within 50 parts per million. His book, "The Very First Light," written with John Boslough, highlights the work of some 1500 collaborators on the COBE project.
He shared amazement with the audience that 73% of all mass and energy in the universe is dark energy, which causes the universe to accelerate, and that cold dark matter makes up 23%. Only 4% of the universe's mass and energy is made up of atoms, or normal matter, and can be observed directly. "We don't really know what this dark matter and energy is," he said. "It is possible we will one day be able to create a dark particle in the lab, and it is also entirely possible that this will never happen."
Mather now leads the James Webb Space Telescope science team as senior project scientist at NASA Goddard's Observational Cosmology Laboratory. Planned for launch in 2013, this new telescope will explore how galaxies are formed in the universe and investigate where stars and planets are being born today. Mather predicted that images currently taking the Hubble Telescope several weeks to obtain will require only a few hours of observation with the new telescope.
After Mather's presentation, a member of the audience wondered aloud what happened before the Big Bang. Mather acknowledged that this timeframe is still a puzzle "since we can run the movie backward to the place where everything is compressed and we know that the laws of nature do not apply."
"There are a lot of approaches, such as string theory, to try to understand what may have happened, but it may be that we'll never know because we won't be able to obtain the data," he said. "I guess we'll have to wait for future generations of Stephen Hawkings for the answer to that question."
Mello, a joint recipient with Andrew Fire of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, followed Mather's presentation. He explained the intricate workings of RNA interference (RNAi) to regulate gene expression and how, along with the human genome sequence, this information promises to revolutionize medicine.
Mello said students at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he is the Blais Professor of Molecular Medicine, often ask him how they can win the Nobel Prize. His advice is to start new projects as often as possible and to engage in collaborations with other scientists. His work with Andrew Fire , now professor of pathology and genetics at Stanford University School of Medicine, began in the 1980s as both sought to develop a new tool by injecting microscopic organisms, the C. elegans worm, with genetic material in order to understand its function.
He found a connection between Mather's measurements of cosmic background radiation and his own work on worms in that "living things are remarkably similar to each other. Life itself exists on a cosmic level."
Mello explained that RNAi works a lot like Google. "In the cell, you have tons of info and you want to find something specific," he said. "RNAi is a way for the cell to search through all of this information and find the right sequence."
By injecting RNAi into the worm, Mello and Fire were able to "knock out," or silence, genes from working. The RNAi pathway is initiated by an enzyme that "resembles those late-night TV knife commercials," Mello said. "That's what it's been like to study this. 'It dices, it slices, but wait—there's more.'"
His group then discovered that the RNAi was passed down to progeny and that the silencing effect was reinforced and amplified inside the animal. "We found that RNA is not just a viral mechanism but something the organism uses to mechanize its own genes," he said. Since this discovery, RNAi has been shown to silence genes in organisms ranging from plants and fruit flies to humans.
Mello said that "RNA interference can be thought of as RNA information," and detailed the ways in which that information is changing medicine. "We now have a better appreciation of how diseases like cancer operate and how we can modify gene regulation, as well as a new drug platform," he said.
During the question-and-answer session that followed his presentation, an audience member asked what is enough funding for science. "I like to think of funding for science in terms of investing for the future," said Mello. "It's sad that we have this tremendous opportunity with molecular medicine but [the United States] is not investing. The importance of supporting basic research cannot be overstated. If all you study is cancer, you may never cure cancer."
15 August 2007