updated 10/4/2006 6:40:59 AM ET 2006-10-04T10:40:59

American Roger D. Kornberg, whose father won a Nobel Prize a half-century ago, was awarded the prize in chemistry Wednesday for his studies of how cells take information from genes to produce proteins.

Disturbances in that process, known as transcription, are involved in many human illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation. Understanding transcription also is vital to the development of treatments using stem cells.

Kornberg’s father, Arthur Kornberg, won a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1959, also for work in genetics.

Roger D. Kornberg’s work produced a detailed picture of transcription in eukaryotes, the group of organisms that includes humans and other mammals, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in its citation.

Kornberg described how information is taken from genes and converted to molecules called messenger RNA. These molecules shuttle the information to the cells’ protein-making machinery.

The 59-year-old is a member of the Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif.

Kornberg is the lone winner of the 2006 chemistry prize, and the fifth American to win a Nobel prize this year. So far, all the prizes — medicine, physics and chemistry — have gone to Americans.

Last year’s Nobel laureates in chemistry were France’s Yves Chauvin and Americans Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock, who were honored for discoveries that let industry develop drugs and plastics more efficiently and with less hazardous waste.

Alfred Nobel's legacy
Alfred Nobel, the wealthy Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite who endowed the prizes, left only vague guidelines for the selection committee.

In his will, he said the prize should be given to those who “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” and “have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement.”

This year’s Nobel announcements began Monday, with the Nobel Prize in medicine going to Americans Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello for discovering a powerful way to turn off the effect of specific genes, opening a potential new avenue for fighting diseases as diverse as cancer and AIDS. Their work dealt with how messenger RNA can be prevented from delivering its message to the protein-making machinery.

On Tuesday, Americans John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won the physics prize for work that helped cement the big-bang theory of how the universe was created and deepen understanding of the origin of galaxies and stars.

Each prize includes a check for $1.4 million, a diploma and a medal, which will be awarded by Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

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