|From Wu et al. 2009. A phylogeny driven genomic encyclopedia of bacteria and archaea. Nature 462, 1056-1060 doi:10.1038/nature08656 http://bit.ly/8Y8xea
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: