Here’s hoping molecular classification/systematics of cultured & uncultured microbes wins #NobelPrize in medicine

From Wu et al. 2009. A phylogeny driven genomic encyclopedia of bacteria and archaea. Nature 462, 1056-1060 doi:10.1038/nature08656

Well, I am always hopeful.  Every year when the Nobel Prizes come around I am alway hoping that one of them goes to someone involved in studying microbial diversity in some way.  And really, there is a potential Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine out there in this area.  Sure they do not give out a Nobel in biology, or evolution or ecology.  But I think a good argument could be made for giving out a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to those who have worked on molecular systematics of cultured and uncultured microbes.

Why should this attract the attention of those giving out the Nobel Prizes?  Well, without molecular systematics of microbes we would be completely lost in a sea of microbial diversity.  And with such molecular systematics we can not only make much more sense out of the biology of cultured organisms, but we can go to environments and determine who is out there by sampling their genes.  And this type of work has undoubtedly revolutionized medicine, from determining what antibiotics are most likely to be useful in infections, to tracking emerging infectious diseases, to studying the vast diversity of microbes we have not yet cultured in the lab.  Certainly with the growing importance of the human microbiome in medical studies and the growing application of molecular systematics (e.g., rRNA surveys) to all sorts of aspects of microbiology, the time is ripe for an award in this area.

And who would get an award if one was given.  Well, certainly one of the people should be Carl Woese, who pioneered the use of comparative analysis of the sequences of rRNA genes to the study of systematics of microbes.  Woese of course was responsible for proposing the existence of a third branch in the tree of life – the archaea.  And even if you do not personally believe that the “three domain” tree of life is perfectly correct, Woese and colleagues (e.g., George Fox, who was a coauthor on some of the pioneering papers) were responsible for making microbial systematics a much more rigorous science than it had been.

And I think a good argument could be made for including Norm Pace in this Nobel as he was the one mostly responsible for pushing the sequencing and analysis of rRNA genes for studying microbes in the environment (though I note, others like Mitch Sogin also helped pioneer this field).  There is a direct path from Woese through Pace to much of modern molecular studies of microbes in the environment, including the latest approach – metagenomics.  In fact, there has even been a Nobel Prize already given that depended on much of this work – the one in 2005 to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren for discovery of the role of Helicobacteri pylori in causing stomach ulcers.

Anyway – just a short post about this – maybe more later.  But I sincerely think this would be a well deserved area in which to hand out one of those Nobel Prizes.  Not holding my breath, but always hopeful.

Here some potentially related things that I have written that may be useful to read:

About Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

2 thoughts on “Here’s hoping molecular classification/systematics of cultured & uncultured microbes wins #NobelPrize in medicine

  1. Of course it would be awesome if microbial systematics was given a Nobel, but the way I see it, the Crafoord Prize to Woese in 2003 probably means that the Nobel committee considers the field covered already (The Crafoord is also given out by the King of Sweden but is funded by a later industrialist than Nobel)


  2. Well, I think that went to Woese really for the archaea thing. I am suggesting here that there should be a prize for molecular systematics/classification of microbes as a method and that it should go to people who developed this for cultured and uncultured bugs. It would seem to me that this would mean Woese and Pace and possibly a third though not sure.

    I know — in my dreams. But it is good to dream.


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