Celebrating serendipity

Published November 01 2016

In September, the Lasker Foundation awarded the 2016 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award to Gregg L. Semenza, Peter J. Ratcliffe and William G. Kaelin Jr. for the discovery of the HIF1 transcription factor and the mechanistic steps in the universal pathway explaining the cellular response to hypoxia. The 2016 Lasker–DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award went to Charles M. Rice, Ralf F.W. Bartenschlager and Michael J. Sofia for research characterizing the molecular biology of the hepatitis C virus, the development of in vitro systems for HCV replication, and the development of therapeutics to treat and in some cases cure chronic HCV infection and liver disease. And the 2016 Lasker–Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science went to Bruce Alberts for his fundamental discoveries of the protein components and mechanism of DNA replication and for his leadership in science education and international collaborations in science teaching and learning. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which proudly counts four of the winners as members, heartily congratulates all recipients.

Importantly, serendipity and the ability to glean deep insights from hints and unexpected findings played major roles of every breakthrough.

For example, Semenza’s detection of a faint hypoxia-induced band on an EMSA autoradiograph enabled the biochemical purification of HIF1, which launched the molecular mechanism for hypoxia signaling. Rice’s chance discovery of a 3’ segment missing in the HCV genome and the invention of HCV minigenome replicons by Bartenschalger were critical to the development of a cellular model of HCV infection. And it was Alberts’ accidental discovery that DNA binds tightly to cellulose that enabled him to purify and reconstitute DNA replication proteins and realize that the replisome is a macromolecular machine capable of simultaneous leading and lagging strand synthesis.

The perspicacity to pursue initial leads, often murky and obscure, and the tenacity to follow the science to discover their full meaning are key to creating new knowledge.

Also essential to their success were the investigators’ interdisciplinary strategies, with chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology at their core. Essential as well were collaboration and information sharing between many labs, including the knowledge flow in both directions between basic research and private sector R&D labs that was critical for successful therapeutics for HCV. Diverse individuals from many countries and of many races and ethnicities, in both academic and private settings, made key contributions in each scientific team.

Recognition for Alberts especially is appreciated by the ASBMB, given the special regard that our society has for science education. Throughout his career, Alberts has led the way as an advocate for teaching critical-thinking skills to students, from his landmark textbook “Molecular Biology of the Cell” to his achievements as president of the National Academy of Sciences in promoting curiosity and inquiry-based methods for STEM undergraduate and K–12 education.

This advocacy impacts everyone, at all levels — here in Colorado, my colleague Amy Palmer has overhauled freshman chemistry to emphasize concepts-based learning with transformative results.

No matter what we do as scientists, part of our mandate certainly must include instilling students with the curiosity, self-confidence and passion for scientific inquiry that will prepare them for their own serendipitous moments to come.

Natalie Ahn Natalie Ahn of the University of Colorado, Boulder, is president of the ASBMB.