Time for a Nobel Prize for the human microbiome? I think so … what do you think?

Well, previously I have written about how I thought that there should have been a Nobel Prize awarded  to Carl Woese and Norm Pace for pioneering work on microbial diversity.  See for example “Some arguments for why Carl Woese (and probably Norm Pace) deserves a Nobel Prize“.  Alas Carl Woese passed away recently and is no longer eligible.  However, in a way this opens up things to a perhaps more medical driven Nobel prize in Medicine for the microbiome.  I believe that the human microbiome has been shown to be important enough in medicine to be deserving of a Nobel Prize in medicine.

And if that is true, then we can ask “Are there any people who would deserve a prize in this area?”  And the answer is pretty clearly yes.  I would suggest that there are two people who deserve such a recognition: Norm Pace and Jeff Gordon.  Norm Pace for his pioneering work on characterizing microbes indirectly via sequencing their RNA and DNA, especially their ribosomal RNA genes.  And Jeffrey Gordon for his pioneering work on animal and the human micro biome and in showing that the microbiome plays fundamental roles in animals and human health and phenotypes.

I will write more about this later but just wanted to get this thought out there … and see what people think.

UPDATE September 2015 I note. I have been and continue to be concerned with the spread of “microbiomania” which is the term I use to refer to “Overselling the Microbiome“. Even though this still is a problem, I also believe the microbiome has now been clearly shown to be critically important to human health in diverse ways and I do think it is appropriate to award a Nobel Prize in this area.

Also note Reuters is reporting that Jeffrey Gordon is on their candidate list this year (based on ISI predictions).

2003 email from Carl Woese to Mitch Sogin after winning Crafoord Prize

I had posted an email here from Carl Woese to Mitch Sogin (with Mitch’s permission).  However, in retrospect I feel uncomfortable posting private emails of Carl Woese’s here as he is not around to give permission.  So I have removed them.  Apologies to all who may have felt uncomfortable about the posting and to those who wish it would remain public.  But I just do not feel comfortable with this anymore.

Some arguments for why Carl Woese (and probably Norm Pace) deserves a Nobel Prize

Compiling posts and articles discussing why Carl Woese deserves a Nobel Prize.  Will be writing a new article on this but felt like I should share the articles in case I don’t get done in time

I note I do not think Woese should win a Nobel for discovering the archaea.  That was a groundbreaking finding but it does not fit well with the Nobel Prize categories.  I think he should win it for the concept of molecular classification of microorganisms and applying this in general to the microbial world around us.  This concept (expanded by Norm Pace and colleagues to uncultured microbes) revolutionized our approach to studying single microbes in the environment, to studying single microbes infecting people and to studying communities of microbes in and on people.  And thus Woese and Pace in my opinion deserve the Nobel Prize for Medicine.  I will be expanding on this in a future post …

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  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:

Foundation: Nobel Prizes to be awarded via reality shows incl. Nobel Survivor, Sweden’s Next Model (System) & The Amazing Particle Race

In a surprise last minute press release the Nobel Foundation has announced that this year’s Nobel Prizes will be given out via reality show style competitions rather than by the traditional committee deliberations.

Marcus Snorch, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Nobel Foundation said in at a press conference announcing the new system “We have noticed that in the last 5-10 years there has been a diminishing interest in the Nobel Prizes. This decrease appears linked to the steady increase in popularity of so-called reality show competitions. We felt like it was time for the Nobel Prize to try and attract a younger audience. Our reality Nobel series should be highly popular.”

Barbara Connon, chairman of the Nobel Foundation Board of Trustees concurred, “We all felt like a shake up was necessary. The Nobel Prize is so important for the world, yet nobody was paying attention anymore. Our new approach, where semifinalists are announced in advance and then a competition decides the winner, should bring new attention to the Prizes”

The announcement represents an agreement between the many institutions involved in awarding the Nobel Prizes including the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that presides over the prizes in Chemistry, Physics and Economics; the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska which awards the Prize in Medicine, the Swedish Academy which awards the Literature prize and the Norwegian Nobel Committee that awards the Peace Prize.

At the press conference, the Nobel Foundation presented the new reality series, one for each Nobel Prize. The example they highlighted relates to this years prize in Physiology and Medicine which will be given out via “Nobel Survivor.” This show will feature Nobel Semifinalists living on a remote tropical island and the competitions will feature major medical “events” that one member of each team will experience.  Each week the team that responds least well to the challenge will have to vote off one member.  The challenges will include infections by schistosomes and filarial nematodes, a series of autoimmune disorders, premature aging, erectile disfunction, and severe body odor.  The competitions will be presided over by Hugh Laurie.

“Many of the Physiology and Medicine prizes have been criticized for being too disconnected from actual Medicine.  So we figured what better way to pick the winner than to make them actually do some medicine, but without all the comforts of home,” said Barbara Connon. This years semifinalists who will be participating include J. Craig Venter, Lee Hood, Joan Steitz, Alec Jeffreys, Carl Woese, Norm Pace, Mary Claire King, Douglas Coleman, Elaine Fuchs, and James Till.

Other shows for this and future year’s prizes include:

Sweden’s Next Model (System)
The 2011 Medicine and Physiology prize will feature a competition to determine what is the best model organism.

Real Literature Idol
The 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature will be given out via a literature reading and slam poetry series dubbed “Real Literature Idol”

The Amazing Particle Race
The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics will be given out to the scientist who is best able to maneuver their particle through a month long journey around the globe.

Dancing Peacefully With the Stars
Enough with Peace Prizes being given to people who work on abstract global issues.  The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize will be given out through a dance competition.  All “stars” selected for the competition will be notorious for their difficulty in getting along with others and will include Mel Gibson, Alex Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Barbara Streisand, Kanye West, Dick Cheney, Amy Winehouse, and Courtney Love.

The Swedish Chef
In order to make chemistry more “Real” for the public, the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be awarded in a Swedish Cooking competition.

The Nobel Apprentice
The Prize in Economic Sciences (though not technically a formal Nobel Prize) will be awarded via a collaboration with an existing reality show “The Apprentice.” Candidates for the prize will compete to be Donald Trumps economic advisor.

The Nobel Foundation is also soliciting feedback, right here on this blog, for ideas for other Nobel Prize related reality shows for future awards.  Please submit suggestions.

Open Science Pioneer Award: Douglas Prasher and the Sharing of the GFP Gene

There is a touching and fascinating story in the Cape Cod Times about Douglas Prasher who used to work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In the 1960s he did some of the pioneering work on GFP (the discovery of which was why Osamu Shimomura, Roger Tsein and Martin Chalfie were given the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year). Prasher had cloned the gene for GFP but his research funds ran out and he stopped working on GFP (he is currently living in Huntsville Alabama and working as a shuttle driver for a car dealership).

His pioneering work was critical to the later work on GFP and one of the nobel winner Martin Chalfie says

“Prasher’s work was critical and essential for the work we did in our lab,” Chalfie said. “They could’ve easily given the prize to Douglas and the other two and left me out.”

What Prasher did that was so critical was that he gave the cloned gene away to Tsein and Chalfie and others. He was under no obligation per se to give away the gene. But he bears no sour grapes. And he says something fundamentally true about this:

“When you’re using public funds, I personally believe you have an obligation to share,” Prasher said. “I put my heart and soul into it, but if I kept that stuff, it wasn’t gonna go anyplace.”

Sharing of resources is common in science but not universal. And many do it, well, just because it is common practice. But I think we forget sometimes that we have an obligation to share beyond what is common practice. We have an obligation because the advancement of science is why the government (and the public) gives us money to do our work. So, for not harboring sour grapes about missing out on a Nobel Prize, and for emphasizing the “public good” part of sharing scientific resources, I am giving Douglas Prasher an “Open Science Pioneer Award”

See also

Nobel Prize in Medicine Winner is a PLoS One Author …

For You Open Access supporters out there, check out the recent PLoS One paper by Françoise Barré-Sinouss one of the new 2008 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine.

The paper is Scott-Algara D, Arnold V, Didier C, Kattan T, Pirozzi G, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Gianfranco Pancino (2008) The CD85j+ NK Cell Subset Potently Controls HIV-1 Replication in Autologous Dendritic Cells. PLoS ONE 3(4): e1975. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001975

You go PLoS One.

Nobel Prize in Medicine for Viral Discoveries

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to Harald zur Hausen, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for discovery of viruses (HPV and HIV) (see Nobel Announcement – Medicine 2008).

How Al Gore changed my life and Congratulations on a well deserved Novel Prize

My life changed a great deal in 1989 when Al Gore came to speak at Harvard for the Environmental Action Committee in which I was involved. In honor of his Nobel Peace Prize here are my notes from his talk which I had intended to write up for a Biology Department newsletter but never did. I never finished the notes but here is the start.

Senator Al Gore ’69 spoke to Science A-30 class (as well as many others) in the end of November. His main focus was change in the global environment (i.e greenhouse effect, pollution, ozone depletion, deforestation, etc.) and what can and should be done about such issues. Senator Gore’s interest in the environment, now almost a crusade, was sparked in a class he took at Harvard from Prof. Ravel. Gore suggested that the first step that we as a nation, and as a species, must take is to recognize that there is a problem. He referred to the classical biology example of the frog in a pot of water. If the temperature of the water is increased rapidly then the frog will be leaping at the opportunity to get out. However, if the temperature of the pot is increased gradually the frog may not sense anything, and will cook in its own innocence. According to Gore, today’s society is prone to such a way of thinking. Society is least likely to recognize those changes in the environment that occur over long periods of time. It is like the Far Side cartoon in which a caveman asks his friend if the ice wall looks a bit closer today.

So, the first step is to recognize that changes are going on, and that they are more that just gradual, that they are completely new in quality and quantity. The main problem today as compared to two thousand years ago is that the changes are happening too fast. The population is increasing at a rate never seen before. Rapidly increasing levels of greenhouse gases may lead to changes in climate and temperature that will be too fast for many organisms to respond. Extinction rates, already higher than any time since the “great” dinosaur extinction, may increase even more as organisms get wiped out by the environmental changes. Ozone depletion over the antarctic may just be a warning of a decrease over the temperate and tropical areas. The subsequent increase in UV light levels at the surface of the earth could have catastrophic effects. Industrialists and many government officials suggest that “science” will be able to cure these problems in the future

This same type of graph can be shown for ozone depletion, deforestation, pollution, soil erosion, and species depletion. However, as long as their is a lack of consensus as to the amount of change, and to the degree that any of these changes will affect human’s (especially those alive today), there will be little change in government policy. In essence, Gore says, we are doing what the frog did.

There are quite a few criticisms to Gore’s approach. Technology, that wonderful thing that has brought us strip mining, and artificial hearts, may be able to, in the future, reverse some of those things we are doing now. So why limit growth, when we can clean up later. It’s like when I was a kid, “But mom, I’ll clean up after Tom and Jerry” knowing full well that I wouldn’t and running the risk of getting attacked by one of the dust balls under my dresser. However, if I made a real mess, such as one that would stain something, I had to clean it up then and there. The problem is that everyone seems to think all of these processes that are taking place in the atmosphere are reversible when in fact they may not be. Species depletion clearly is not. And if the other processes are allowed to run amok, we will likely have one big mess on our hands.

I went up and talked to Gore afterwards and found him truly inspiring. It was this discussion that helped guide me to start a new Environmental Issues journal at Harvard and to do various other things for Earth Day 1990. Anyway, all I can say is congratulations to Al Gore, a Nobel Prize well deserved for someone who has been working to help our planet for at least 20 years.

Tetrahymena Part of Recent Lasker Awards

The Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research was given a few days ago (see here). It went to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak for work on telomerase, the enzyme that synthesizes the ends of linear chromosomes. The whole history of the discovery of telomeres and telomerase is fascinating and a good summary can be found at the Lasker site. The discoveries were made possible in a large part due to the unique and tractable biology of the single celled eukaryotes Tetrahymena thermophila, one of my favorite bugs. Perhpas most importantly, this species has a lot of telomeres and teomerase in each cell since it contains >200 linear chromosomes in the macronucleus and each are present in about 40-50 copies.

I of course have a vested interest in this since I have been in charge of the project to sequence the macronuclear genome of this species. We just published a summary of our findings in PLoS Biology (see the paper here). Research on this organism has led to some other fundamental discoveries in biology, including, for example, the discovery of catalytic RNA, which won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1989.

Winning the Lasker award bodes well for Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak as many previous recipients have gone on to win a Nobel (the Lasker site has a good list of this connection here). However the Lasker listing includes people who won the Lasker AFTER they won a Nobel, which is a bit silly. I am sure they were happy to also get the Lasker Award, but that does not provide useful information for the Lasker as a predictor of the Nobel.

Anyway, a tip of my hat to team telomerase and Tetrahymena thermophila.