Since the first Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901, over 850 Laureates have received a Nobel Prize. (from: Nobel Prize Facts)
(Just for fun, can you name 10 Nobel Prize-winning scientists?)
Did you ever wonder how many Nobel Prize winners did their research studying plants?
The short answer is: not many.
Probably the most well-know plant biologist to a win a Nobel Prize is Norman Borlaug, who was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the world food supply. As a leading American agronomist in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he has been called “the father of the Green Revolution“. Dr. Borlaug died in 2009, at the age of 95.
Another Nobel-winning scientist who worked with plants is Melvin Calvin, who led the team at UC, Berkeley, including Andrew Benson and James Bassham, that elucidated the path of carbon in photosynthesis. (And, yes, for all of you current and former students of plant physiology or biochemistry, that’s where the name “Calvin Cycle” comes from.)
Dr. Calvin was awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (An interesting aside to this Nobel Prize is that some thought that Andrew Benson was robbed of a Nobel Prize.) Dr. Calvin died in 1997 at the age of 85.
My personal favorite Nobel Laureate, however, is Dr. Barbara McClintock. (I was honored to meet her in 1986 while I was taking a course at the Cold Spring Harbor labs). Dr. McClintock was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of “mobile genetic elements” (a.k.a., transposable elements). Her research was conducted primarily with maize.
Dr. McClintock actively continued her research until she died in 1992 at the age of 90.
After reviewing the list of Nobel Laureates, I was able to identify at least seven more people who were awarded Nobel Prizes, and who worked with plants.
Three of these Laureates were chemists working on plant-derived compounds, such as chlorophyll, and three won their Nobel Prizes for the determination of the structure of a photosynthetic reaction center, and one for planting trees in Africa. I think it’s fair to count them as Nobel Prize winners who worked with plants. And here they are, listed by the year each was awarded the Nobel Prize.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1915 went to Richard Willstätter “for his researches on plant pigments, especially chlorophyll”.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1930 was awarded to Hans Fischer “for his researches into the constitution of haemin and chlorophyll and especially for his synthesis of haemin”.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1947 went to Sir Robert Robinson “for his investigations on plant products of biological importance, especially the alkaloids”.
Three Nobel Prizes in Chemistry 1988 were awarded to Johann Deisenhofer, Robert Huber, Hartmut Michel “for the determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction centre”.
The Nobel Peace Prize 2004 was awarded to Wangari Maathai “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. She is best known for founding the Green Belt Movement, which has planted over 40 million trees across Africa. (Wangari Maathai died in 2011 at the age of 71.)
Why aren’t there more plant scientists with Nobel prizes?
Well, perhaps because, in the world of modern science, plant scientists just don’t get respect.
Perhaps a better answer is that plant scientists certainly don’t receive the level of basic research funding enjoyed by scientists in health-related fields, for example. (see Refs. 1 and 2 below, for example.)
This perceived, or real, lack of respect for research done on plants is illustrated by two recent examples. The first was for nitric oxide, and the second was for small interfering RNAs (RNAi).
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1998 was awarded jointly to Robert F. Furchgott, Louis J. Ignarro and Ferid Murad “for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system”. The Nobel Committee stated that “this was the first discovery that a gas can act as a signal molecule in the organism.”
Eminent plant physiologist Hans Kende begged to differ, however. He commented in a letter to Science magazine: “The discovery of ethylene as an endogenous signal molecule should be recognized as the first demonstration—by plant biologists—that a gas can serve as a signal molecule in the organism and that this constitutes an entirely new principle for signaling in biological systems.” (from Ref 3 below)
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2006 was awarded jointly to Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello “for their discovery of RNA interference – gene silencing by double-stranded RNA”
But some plant biologists protested. “Most of the six points cited in support of the prize were not first shown by Andrew Fire or Craig Mello, who won the prize, but were already known from plant research. For example, the sequence specificity, RNA degradation and post-transcriptional nature of gene silencing had all been shown in studies on plants and plant viruses…” (from Ref 4. below)
1. Rabson, R. (1989) “It Can’t Happen Here?”, The Plant Cell, vol. 1, pp. 167-168. (PDF)
2. Law, M. T., G. J. Miller and J. M. Tonon (2005) Earmarked: The Political Economy of Agricultural Research Appropriations. (PDF)
3. Kende, H. (1998) “Plant Biology and the Nobel Prize.” Science, Vol. 282, p. 627. (PDF)
4. Bots, M., S. Maughan, and J. Nieuwland (2006) “RNAi Nobel ignores vital groundwork on plants.” Nature, Vol. 443, p. 906. (PDF)
By the way, an excellent biography of Dr. McClintock is A Feeling for the Organism, 10th Aniversary Edition: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock.
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