Arthur Kornberg: A Nobel Laureate

Arthur Kornberg was born on March 3, 1918 in Brooklyn, New York. He was educated in Abraham Lincoln High School and continued his education at the City College of New York. This was where he first received his scientific training as he graduated with a degree in science in 1937. He received his medical degree in 1941 from the University of Rochester and proceeded with his internship in internal medicine. He then served in the U.S. Public Health Service as a commissioned officer where his first assignment was to be doctor in the Navy, serving as a ship’s doctor.
Fortunately, he was given the opportunity to continue his research work as a scientist at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. He served at the NIH from 1942 to 1953. This is where he decided to direct his research to mainly concentrate with enzymes. Dr. Kornberg received further studies and training in enzymology. In New York University School of Medicine, he trained with Professor Severo Ochoa in 1946. A year later, he pursued enzymology with Professor Carl Cori at the Washington University School of Medicine.
He later returned to service at the NIH and became the organizer and director of the Institute’s Enzyme Section. He later received an offer as the chairman of the Department of Microbiology of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri prompting him to resign his position of Medical Director in Bethesda. He later transferred to Standford University School of Medicine in 1959. This is where he organized a Department of Biochemistry and served as the chairman until 1969. After his term, he served as a professor and in 1988 he accepted the title Professor Emeritus (Kornberg 2005, & Kumin 2005).

Dr. Kornberg devoted most of his studies isolating and purifying enzymes significant in cellular machinery. Until the first half of the 20th century, questions on enzymatic function and their cellular specificity were left unanswered. This became Dr. Kornberg’s primary area of interest. In 1941, Beadle and Tatum from Standford demonstrated that through chemical functions, genes control life processes. Immediately after this discovery, Oswald Avery and his team from the Rockefellar Institute asserted that DNA drives this process instead of proteins, which was the primary assumption of the scientific community. Later, the famous James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the first detailed model of the DNA, demonstrating its structure as the well-known double helix (McCook 2007 and 2007).
The primary subject of Kornberg’s research was due to his interest in discovery enzymatic mechanisms and functions. Together with Dr. Severo Ochoa, he discovered the ezyme Polymerase I which is the primary catalyst of DNA synthesis. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1959 for their elucidation of the basic DNA replication mechanisms (Kumin 2007 and McCook 2007).
This success of Kornberg in producing a chemically exact and inert genetic material called the DNA is a milestone in the field of biochemistry. It is an important leap towards the understanding of the material that compose the genes. This is important in the issues and questions on inheritance and transmission of traits ( 2007).
Kornberg and Ochoa both specialized on the field of protein biochemistry. But this breakthrough discovery was actually concerned mainly on the field of molecular genetics. His primary technique was to isolate enzymes in a chemist’s lab and comprehending them biologically. This is a very significant approach in understanding of cellular molecular biology. In 1967, Kornberg successfully synthesized the first active virus within a lab. It was identified as PhiX174, a biologically active virus synthesized by a biochemist (Kumin 2007 and Altman 2007).
After his extensive research on enzymatic synthesis of coenzymes and inorganic pyrophosphate, his interest led him to the study of the biosynthesis of nucleic acids, particularly DNA. He demonstrated the pathways of pyrimidine and purine nucleotide synthesis, elaborating with the mechanisms and detailed steps on the process. Here, he found that there is an intermediate PRPP to the enzyme concerned in the assemblage of building blocks into DNA.  It was named as DNA polymerase.
This particular enzyme is found in almost all cellular systems that synthesize genetically precise DNA. This is very important in the processes of replication, repair and rearrangements of DNA. Further research identified enzymes responsible for DNA metabolism, allowing the initiation and elongation of DNA chains and chromosomes. This paved the way for the discovery of recombinant DNA, a breakthrough technology that ignited the biotechnological revolution (Kornberg, 2005).
After decades in the research on DNA replication, he diverted his concentration to studies in inorganic polyphosphate (poly P) in 1991. Poly P is a phosphate polymer that was hypothesized to have participated in prebiotic evolution. This polymer is basically found in every bacterial, plant, and animal cells. It has been dismissed as simply a molecular fossil, Kornberg found that there are different functions for poly P including stress responses, motility, and virulence in some pathogens (Kornberg, 2005).
Besides conducting research studies, he has other pursuits such as educating graduate, medical and postdoctoral students. He also authored several monographs such as “DNA Synthesis” in 1974, “DNA Replication” in 1980, “Supplement to DNA Replication” in 1982, and Second Edition of “DNA Replication” in 1992. He also published a scientific autobiography entitled “For the Love of Enzymes: The Odyssey of a Biochemist” in 1989. Published by Univesity Science Books in July 1995, he released his book entitled “The Golden Helix: Inside Biotech Venutre” which provided insights on the biotechnology from an expert (Kornberg, 2005).
His academic career included his presidency of the American Society of Biological Chemistry in 1965. He also served as a president on advisory boards and councils of numerous universities, governmental, and industrial research facilities. He founded the DNAX Research Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology that is a division of Schering-Plough, Inc. He also served as a member of its Policy and Scientific Advisory Boards. Futhermore, he served on the Scientific Advisory Boards of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Maxygen, and the Xoma Corp., and was also a member of the Board of Directors of XOMA Corporation (Kornberg 2005).
Contributing further to his excellent curriculum vitae, he has received honors and gained memberships in the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, American Philosophical Society, and a number of honorary degrees such as the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1959, the National Medal of Science in 1979, the Cosmos Club Award in 1995, and more. Arthur Kornberg died on March 26, 2007 due to respiratory complications (Kornberg, 2005 and Altman 2007).
Undoubtedly, Kornberg’s contribution to the biotechnological society is unwavering. His research has paved the way for most of the scientific advances that the world is currently witnessing. His studies have proven indispensable in the understanding of human heredity, cellular mechanisms, and pyrophosphate functions.
Altman, Lawrence K. (2007). “Arthur Kornberg, Biochemist, Dies at 89.” New York Times.
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