Remembering a Pioneer of Biotechnology

Today is the birthday of Arthur Kornberg, who was born on March 3, 1918.  The American biochemist was the first to discover how DNA is biologically assembled.

In 1956, Dr. Kornberg discovered DNA polymerase, an enzyme fundamental to the creation, replication and repair of DNA.  But many of his peers argued that such work could not possibly have been accomplished in a laboratory.  Kornberg’s research papers were originally rejected by the Journal of Biological Chemistry in a very sarcastic letter.

The rejection stated that “it is very doubtful that the authors are entitled to speak of the enzymatic synthesis of DNA,” even declaring that “ ‘polymerase’ is a poor name.”

By sheer luck, the Journal was in the process of changing editors.  The new editor saw Kornberg’s papers and published them immediately.  A year later, Kornberg was awarded the 1959 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

(Kornberg is one of six Nobel laureates whose sons were also Nobel laureates.  Roger Kornberg later received the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.)

Arthur Kornberg’s discovery was the foundation for numerous subsequent innovations in gene splicing and genetic engineering.  Many of today’s therapeutics for cancer, AIDS and other viral infections exist because of Kornberg’s work.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a modern breakthrough technology in which a single piece of DNA can be used to create millions of copies.  Agilent is an industry leader in PCR solutions.

Kornberg founded the Department of Biochemistry at Stanford University, and continued to work there until days before his death at the age of 89.  The Arthur Kornberg Medical Research Building at the University of Rochester is named in his honor.

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