Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Frederick Sanger (1918-2013)

If there is ever a God in biochemistry, Frederick Sanger is (was) the one.  Sanger died on Nov 19, 2013.  His work has been enshrined in every biochemistry textbook and well known to everybody in the field.  He was the first to sequence a protein (insulin), winning a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1958.  He then devised a simple and easy way to sequence DNA, earning the second Nobel prize in chemistry in 1980.  An advisor of mine spoke of seeing Sanger at a meeting in the 1990s like someone greeting the Beetles.

Few people had won the Nobel prize twice.  An interesting comparison is with Linus Pauling (1901-1994).  He won the prize in chemistry in 1954 and the peace prize in 1962.  Although the Nobel peace prize is nothing more than a joke (earlier blog “The Overhyped Nobel Prizes”), and the peace prize committee seems to have the mentality of a pupil trying to fill out a blank in an exam as the time is up, e.g., recent awards to the EU and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.  But Pauling was the first to predict secondary structures of proteins.  He then tried to predict DNA structure but lost to Waston and Crick. Had he succeeded, he would have achieved the equivalence of hitting two grand slams in a world series.  The difference might be that Watson and Crick, but not Pauling, saw a DNA X-ray photograph.  It just shows that even a genus mind can’t work consistently in a vacuum.

Sanger retired in 1983.  Not young but still early, considering many scientists work into their 80s or until death.  A reason was that Sanger believed it would be hard for him to top his DNA sequencing achievement.  It is true.  There doesn’t seem to be any dark matter left in a cell on the planet Earth, and even if it existed, it might not be as important as DNA.  Few Nobel-winning scientists were/are able to top their Nobel-winning discoveries after their signature discoveries or Nobel awards.  This is because it always involves a degree of luck, and lighting doesn’t usually strike the same man twice. A case can be made that David Baltimore should get his second for discovering NF-κB and RAG-1 and RAG-2, the master regulators of immunological processes.  Nobel prizes have been given to finding water channels or determining a structure of a protein or complex.  I don’t think they are more significant that finding NF-κB and the RAG genes.

Sanger’s work was truly the Nobels of the Nobels.

Two small steps for a man, two giant leaps for biology.

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