Published 27 June 2011

Sentences that win Nobel prizes

Nobel laureates, like all scientists, have published their findings in peer-reviewed journals. Their initial results, theories and thoughts in these publications have been preserved in the digital archives of the scientific literature, as if they have been frozen in time.

I thought it would be a nice idea to go back to these papers, and see whether they contain traces of remarkable insight or glorious discovery. Are there paragraphs that hint at the future recognition that its writer would receive?  Does the Nobel prize-winning sentence exist?
Of course not. It is ridiculous to suggest that the advancement of science can be captured by a single sentence, or even a single paper. Scientific understanding is a process, and does not arrive via a stroke of genius. Even the Nobel laureates have built on the knowledge of the scientists who came before them.

Still, I think it is an interesting exercise to find out how the laureates that will attend this year’s Lindau meeting initially reported their findings. I therefore reread their key papers, and picked out the sentence that I think best represents their Nobel prize-winning work.

The list makes clear that there is not one way to announce a discovery or insight. Some descriptions are technical, some are lucid. Some are written in the active, and some in the passive voice. But they do have one thing in common. They are all excellent examples of exciting science at the cutting edge of our knowledge. See for yourselves in the list below (any errors or poor choices are entirely my fault)!  

Peter Agre announces the discovery of water channels:
“Our observations strongly suggest that CHIP28 is the functional unit of the constitutively active water channels of RBCs and proximal renal tubules.” (ref)

Werner Arber provides a clue that restriction enzymes recognize specific DNA sequences:
“It is concluded that host specificity is carried on the bacteriophage DNA.” (ref)

Elizabeth Blackburn describes a telomere for the first time:
“The results described in this paper show that at each end of the palindromic, extra-chromosomal rDNA molecules there is a tandemly repeating hexanucleotide sequence.” (ref)

Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko on the discovery of two-component ubiquitin degradation system:
“We now report that the ATP-dependent cell-free system is composed of complementing species, and describe the properties of one of the components.” (ref)

Christian de Duve discovers the lysosome:
“Acid phosphatase is attached to a special type of cytoplasmic granules, differing both from the [..] mitochondria and from the [..] microsomes.” (ref)

Sir Martin Evans describes the isolation of the first embryonic stem cells from mice:
“We have demonstrated here that it is possible to isolate pluripotential cells directly from early embryos.” (ref)

Edmond Fisher writes reversible phosphorylation is a regulatory mechanism:
“The activation and inactivation of muscle phosphorylase, which results from the interconversion of phosphorylases b and a, constitutes an important mechanism by which the metabolism of carbohydrate in this tissue may be controlled.” (ref)

Robert Huber and Michel Hartmut announce that the structure of the photosynthetic reaction centre has been solved:
“In this letter we report the spatial arrangement of the prosthetic groups in the photosynthetic reaction centre as the first result of our structure analysis at 3 angstrom resolution” (ref)

Sir Harold Kroto quips about the name of buckminsterfullerene, or ‘bucky balls’, which he and his team have synthesized:
“We are disturbed at the number of letters and syllables in the rather fanciful but highly appropriate name we have chosen in the title to refer to this C60 species” (ref)

Jean-Marie Lehn describes the synthesis of cryptates:
“In previous communications, we described the synthesis of a macroheterobicyclical compound.” (translated from French: Dans la communication précédente nous avons décrit la synthèse de composés macrohétérobicycliques.) (ref)

NOTE: This is the earliest mention of cryptates by Jean-Marie Lehn that I could find. The sentence contains a reference, but it is merely described as ‘previous communication’ in the reference list.

Ferid Murad describes how a simple nitric oxide molecule can regulate the activity of an enzyme:
While the precise mechanism of guanylate cyclase activation by these agents is not known, activation may be due to the formation of nitric oxide. (ref)

Ei-ichi Negishi describes the first coupling of an organozinc compound with a halide using palladium as a catalyst (this reaction would later become known as the Negishi reaction):
“We now report that organozinc compounds readily participate in the Ni- or PD-catalyzed cross-coupling reaction.” (ref)

Erwin Neher and Bert Sakmann describe the behaviour of a single ion channel for the first time:
“We have formed the following picture of acetylcholine receptors [..]: a channel opens and closes rapidly.” (ref)

Hamilton Smith discovers type II restriction enzymes:
“We have made the chance discovery of what appears to be [..] an enzyme in Hemophilus influenza which specifically degrades foreign DNA.” (ref 1 and ref 2)

Oliver Smithies writes that he has succeeded in inserting foreign genes into mammalian genomes via homologous recombination:
“The experiments reported here establish that the planned modification of a specific human gene can be accomplished in mammalian cells by homologous recombination without detectably affecting other parts of the genome.” (ref)

Thomas Steitz on solving the structure of the ribosome:
“The analysis of the 50S ribosomal subunit structure presented here describes the overall architectural principles of RNA folding and its interaction with proteins, but many exciting details remain to be explored.” (ref)

Roger Tsien foresees the future of fluorescent proteins in biological research:
“The availability of several forms of GFP [..] should facilitate two-color assessment of differential gene expression, developmental fate or protein trafficking.” (ref)

Torsten Wiesel describes his studies on the visual processing of the brain in cats:
“The present investigation [..] includes a study of receptive field of cells in the cat’s striate cortex.” (ref)

Ada Yonath on the crystallization of ribosomal proteins in thermophilic bacteria:
“The  information obtained from the studies described in this paper will be a valuable contribution to the current investigation on the spatial  structure of  the ribosome by chemical, physical, and immunological techniques.” (ref)

NOTE: I tried finding an online version of an earlier paper that is referenced (1980, Biochemistry International), but was unsuccessful

Harald zur Hausen isolates human papillomavirus DNA from cervical cancer samples: 
“The data thus indicate that HPV 16 DNA prevails in malignant [cervical] tumors, rendering an accidental contamination with papillomavirus [..] unlikely” (ref