In 1895, Alfred Nobel wrote in his Last Will and Testament that he wished the bulk of his sizable estate to “constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
Nobel made his considerable fortune by developing nitroglycerin as an industrial explosive; he found that adding a siliceous deposit, also known as diatomaceous earth, rendered nitroglycerin safer and patented the resulting compound as dynamite.
He bequeathed prizes in topics that piqued his curiosity and idealism: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and peace. Not biology you’ll notice. Biologists are normally awarded the prize for chemistry or physiology and medicine, depending on the nature of the topic they addressed.
Old school Nobel prizes were given for discoveries
Conferring “the greatest benefit to mankind”, at least in the sciences, had historically typically been interpreted as making a discovery about the natural world that is particularly relevant to humanity.
Like the Nobel Prize in Chemistry which was given to Stanley Cohen and Rita Levi-Montalcini in 1986 for the isolation of nerve growth factor and to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz, and Ada Yonath in 2009 for elucidating the structure and function of the ribosome.
Nowadays, technology rules Nobel prize awards
But over the century-plus that the prize has been awarded, the Nobel Committees have increasingly seen fit to reward not discoveries, but technological innovations that enable more discoveries. After all, these might confer a greater “benefit to mankind” than any individual discovery.
Two examples: PCR and GFP
PCR is to molecular biology what a hammer is to carpentry: they’re not exactly synonymous, but you pretty much cannot achieve the latter without the former.
Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1993 for inventing PCR. According to his Nobel speech, amplifying DNA wasn’t even his original goal; he had been thinking about a way to use oligonucleotides to determine single base pair mutations from whole human DNA. He worked for Cetus, which made oligos, and they had a glut – so Mullis needed to keep them in demand, so he could keep his job.
It was only while mentally troubleshooting his idea for identifying point mutations that he realized he could amplify a length of DNA of his choosing using two properly designed oligos, and seriously impact – really, dictate – the study of molecular biology from that moment forward. The rest, as they say, is history. For a more detailed account of this story, check out this Bitesize Bio article.
Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Y. Tsien won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for discovering and developing GFP. Hmm…maybe inventing a method that has three initials increases one’s chances of getting a nomination.
Douglas Prasher originally cloned the gene for GFP, and recognized its uniqueness among light-emitting proteins – it could light up all by itself, without an attached chromophore, which is why it is called “fluorescent” instead of “bioluminescent” – but didn’t manage to get it into another organism. Shimomura originally identified the protein in the 1960s, Chalfie expressed it in roundworms, and Tsien mutated it to make blue, yellow, cyan and brighter green versions – a palette for molecular biologists. In other words, Prasher made the discovery, but Shimomura made it into a technology of benefit to mankind.
Both technologies rely on organisms whose “benefit to mankind” might not have been initially obvious. The heat stable DNA polymerase that allows us to set our PCR machines for 30 cycles and then go to lunch, rather than sitting there and adding new enzyme every cycle like Mullis had to, comes from Thermus aquaticus, a strain of bacteria that lives in hot springs. GFP is from Aequorea Victoria, a jellyfish that is clearly not as smart as Taq because it lives in cold water.
Of course, there are other Noble Prizes that have awarded new technologies, rather than the discoveries made using them. If they are any indication of future trends, it may be not what you study, but how you study it that counts.
So if a Nobel prize is your goal, aim for innovation rather than discovery. Oh, and use as many three-letter acronyms as you can.