Nobel Prize in Chemistry Awarded to Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar for DNA Studies


The portraits of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in Stockholm on Wednesday: Tomas Lindahl, Paul L. Modrich and Aziz Sancar

Jonathan Nackstrand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Tomas Lindahl, Paul L. Modrich and Aziz Sancar were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for having mapped and explained how the cell repairs its DNA and safeguards its genetic information.

Dr. Lindahl, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, was honored for his discoveries on base excision repair — the cellular mechanism that repairs damaged DNA during the cell cycle. Dr. Modrich, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Duke University School of Medicine, was recognized for showing how cells correct errors that occur when DNA is replicated during cell division. Dr. Sancar, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was cited for mapping the mechanism cells use to repair ultraviolet damage to DNA.

“Their systematic work has made a decisive contribution to the understanding of how the living cell functions, as well as providing knowledge about the molecular causes of several hereditary diseases and about mechanisms behind both cancer development and aging,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awarded the prize, said in a statement.

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They shared the prize of 8 million Swedish kronor, or about $960,000. The prize was announced in Stockholm by Goran K. Hansson, the academy’s permanent secretary.

The three winners joined the 169 laureates, including Ernest Rutherford, Marie Curie and Linus Pauling, who have been honored with the prize since 1901. (One of them, Frederick Sanger, won twice.)

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This week’s three Nobel Prizes reflect the globalization of science, which the United States often dominated in the last century. The award in medicine or physiology on Monday went to citizens of China and Japan, as well as an American. The physics prize on Tuesday went to experts in Japan and Canada.

Wednesday’s prize in chemistry — Dr. Sancar was born in Turkey, and Dr. Lindahl is the 29th native of Sweden to be named a Nobel laureate — reflects the globalization trend, while underscoring the centrality of American research institutions, where two of the three winners work.

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Since 2000, the United States has managed to maintain its front-runner status in the chemistry prize category, its citizens winning at least part of the award most years and shut out only twice, in 2007 and 2011. Other chemistry laureates have come from Austria, France, Germany, Israel, Japan and Switzerland.

The chemistry prize in recent years has morphed into a celebration of exotic investigations that Alfred Nobel, a chemist who invented dynamite, could scarcely have imagined. The work has little in common with the stick-and-ball models of molecules that generations of students put together.

Of late, more so than with the physics and medicine prize, the award often goes to multifaceted research that crosses disciplinary lines in pursuit of novel insights. Recent winners have developed glowing molecules that illuminate the dance of living cells, computer models that investigate subtle reactions and powerful microscopes that peer deep into living cells to reveal their tiniest structures.

One chemistry laureate discovered the existence of quasicrystals, bizarre materials in which atoms create patterns that never repeat.

The chemistry prize on Wednesday interrupts the drift toward the exotic end of the research spectrum. Instead, it honors scientists who zeroed in on one of life’s central mysteries: how the delicate threads of DNA inside every living cell manage to maintain their integrity despite waves of random mutations and environmental assaults.

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