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Nobel Prize for DNA repair scientists

12 October 2015
Appeared in BioNews 823

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to scientists who discovered the cellular mechanisms for repairing damaged DNA.

Tomas Lindahl of the Francis Crick Institute, Paul Modrich of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Aziz Sancar of the University of North Carolina shared the prize of eight million Swedish kronor (£631,000) for their separate contributions.

DNA can be altered or damaged by a number of processes, such as UV radiation or by chemicals produced naturally through cell metabolism. Mistakes can also be made when DNA is copied just prior to cell division. These errors pose a risk to the proper functioning of cells and could lead to the development of cancer, and therefore need to be carefully controlled.

In the 1970s, the Swedish researcher Thomas Lindahl made the key observation that DNA degrades, even under normal biological conditions, and is not inherently stable, as had been thought. He described how one of the bases of DNA – cytosine – can undergo a chemical process called depurination to form uracil, a base which does not ordinarily appear in DNA strands. He later discovered the enzyme that is responsible for removing uracil in DNA. This started a chain of discoveries that revealed the existence of a wide range of enzymes involved in base-excision repair, which is responsible for fixing various DNA lesions.

US scientist Paul Modrich won the award for his contribution to the description of a different mechanism, called mismatch repair. Mismatch repair prevents mistakes that are made during the copying of DNA strands from being incorporated into the genome. The newly made DNA gets compared to the existing strand, allowing any errors in the new strand to be identified and removed. He identified a number of the enzymes responsible, and showed how they worked together, even when purified and mixed together outside of cells.

The Turkish-American scientist Aziz Sancar received his share of the Nobel Prize for his work into how cells prevent damage from UV radiation. He was the first to clone the gene of the photolyase enzyme, which is responsible for repairing UV-induced DNA damage in bacteria. He later went on to describe another DNA-repair pathway, called nucleotide excision repair, which removes UV-related DNA damage in mammals and other eukaryotes.

Speaking after the announcement, Sir Martyn Poliakoff, vice president of the UK's Royal Society, told BBC News: 'Understanding the ways in which DNA repairs itself is fundamental to our understanding of inherited genetic disorders and of diseases like cancer.'

This is the second major scientific prize this year that has been awarded to researchers in this field, with the Lasker Prize last month going to two other DNA repair specialists (see BioNews 819).

The Nobel Prize award ceremony will take place on 10 December in Sweden.

Chemistry Nobel: Lindahl, Modrich and Sancar win for DNA repair
BBC News |  7 October 2015
DNA repair sleuths win chemistry Nobel
Nature News |  7 October 2015
Nobel prize for chemistry: Lindahl, Modrich and Sancar win for DNA research
The Guardian |  7 October 2015
Scientific Background on the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2015 Mechanistic Studies of DNA Repair
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences |  7 October 2015
The cells' toolbox for DNA repair
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (press release) |  7 October 2015
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