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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Cal math grad Andrew Fire wins 2006 Nobel Prize in medicine

– Andrew Z. Fire, the Stanford University geneticist who today (Monday, Oct. 2) shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is an alumnus of UC Berkeley's mathematics department, having whizzed through Cal in a mere three years before moving on to graduate school at the age of 19.

Andrew Fire
Andrew Z. Fire (Stanford University photo)

Fire, who grew up in Sunnyvale, entered UC Berkeley at the age of 16, lived his final year in International House and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1978 with "highest honors in mathematics and distinction in general scholarship." He was one of two students to share the department citation in 1978, which is given to the top graduating student.

Math professor Marina Ratner, who taught Fire in a graduate-level general topology class when Fire was in his sophomore year, described him as "brilliant." She tried to convince him to stay in mathematics even though he was taking more and more biology courses.

"Andrew told me that he loved math and was taking it for fun," Ratner recalled.

Fire subsequently obtained a Ph.D. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983.

Fire shares the Nobel with Craig C. Mello of the University of Massachusetts Medical School for their discovery that ribonucleic acid (RNA), aside from being a blueprint for proteins in a cell, also can shut down specific genes. This ability, dubbed "RNA interference" (RNAi), is being explored as a possible therapy for diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

"It has become clear over the past several years, based on Fire and Mello's basic discovery using the nematode worm system, that this (RNA interference) is a very widespread system of gene control involving RNA, and has implications for human health and human therapeutics that go far beyond what anyone could have imagined when this was initially discovered," said Jennifer Doudna, UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology, who is investigating the basic processes involved in RNAi. "This was a stunning breakthrough for basic science and for medical science."

Fire made the discovery while on the staff of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., but moved to Stanford in 2003 to be closer to family, according to an online profile at the institution.

RNAi was first observed in petunias, but Fire and Mello explored the effect in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, discovering in 1998 that double-stranded helical RNA binds to matching DNA to silence genes. They went on to explain the enzymatic reactions involved in silencing, though many questions still remain.

"RNA interference has been a wonderful tool, which I use all the time to knock out genes in cells to test what the genes are good for," said Robert Tjian, a professor of molecular and cell biology who studies RNA transcription. "After we sequence the DNA in the genomes of various organisms, it's going to take a lot of effort to find out what the genes are doing. RNAi is a very nice technology to speed that along."

Doudna noted that a Nobel was expected for the discovery of RNAi, which very quickly spread as both a useful tool in research labs and a promising way to silence genes in diseases where genes are overactive.

"Fire came to the field (of genetics) with a quantitative background and made a very exciting observation, and like other brilliant scientists, he didn't ignore it, but followed up and made this outstanding discovery that small RNA molecules were actually important for silencing expression of certain genes," Doudna added. "Little did they (Fire and Mello) or anyone else at the time know that this was going to be an extremely important and general mechanism at work in all animals."

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