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RNA Connections

Andrew Fire, just awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Craig Mello for developing RNA interference and opening the door to new therapies for disease, worked as a post-doctoral fellow under Brit Sydney Brenner, who won a Nobel for pioneering gene-sequencing in his Cambridge lab. Fire then went to Carnegie University's Department of Embryology, where his research with RNA was developed.

Carnegie-Mellon is one of the world's preeminent research universities, with campuses in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Adelaide, Australia; and Qatar. It was founded by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who came to America from Britain as a boy, and made a fortune. Carnegie's initial vision was a vocational training school for the sons and daughters of working-class Pittsburghers. He was famous for innovation and practical problem solving, and Carnegie-Mellon's fame has been built on these achievements as well.

My memory of RNA from a class in biology was my relief that it was just a "messenger", and I didn't have to learn too much about it. This apparently was science's view as well, but Andrew Fire saw practical possibilities in RNA, which shuttles protein-making instructions to cells. RNA's instructions usually take the form of a short, single-strand string of chemicals. Fire and Mello introduced an abnormal double strand of RNA and discovered that double-strand messenger RNA molecules thwart the protein-making process, effectively causing genes to be "silenced."

Therapies developed from this research may allow diseases ranging from cancer to macular degeneration to be silenced in the body.

Fire resembles Brits Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin, who crucially laid the foundation of his work with their discovery of DNA > Like them, Fire began as a mathematician.