DNA researchers win Nobel chemistry prize: Inspiration for Jurassic Park earns science's highest prize

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The Independent Online
THE GENETIC technique behind the film Jurassic Park was yesterday awarded science's highest accolade, winning its inventor the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Dr Kary Mullis, 48, a Californian researcher who developed a way of 'photocopying' DNA, including that from ancient animals, shared the prize of 6.7m kronor (about pounds 560,000) with a British-born researcher, Michael Smith, 61, now at the University of British Columbia, in Canada.

Professor Smith won his share of the prize for inventing a technique for reprogramming the genetic code using synthetic DNA put together in the laboratory.

It is the second time that DNA has been the focus of this year's Nobel prizes, following the awarding of the Medicine or Physiology Prize to the discoverers of 'split genes'.

The Nobel Prize for Physics, also awarded yesterday, went to two American astronomers for proving one of the most exotic consequences of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, using one of the most exotic objects in the universe.

Russell Hulse, 42, and Joseph Taylor, 52, both at Princeton University, in New Jersey, discovered proof of gravitational waves, whose existence was predicted by Einstein's theory.

Hulse and Taylor discovered, within our own galaxy, the Milky Way, a 'binary' pulsar - one which was orbiting a star of similar mass. Using the pattern of radiation pulses from the pulsar to time the orbit, they discovered the two stars were spiralling in on each other.

The only explanation could be that the stars were losing energy from their orbital motion in the form of Einstein's long- predicted, but never before observed, gravitational waves.

According to professor Tony Hewish, the Cambridge radioastronomer who won the 1974 Nobel prize for first discovering the existence of pulsars, Hulse and Taylor's work is 'a wonderful confirmation of Einstein's theory and it throws over other theories of relativity which have been developed since.

'This verifies Einstein's work very beautifully.'

Dr Mullis got his idea for mass-producing DNA during a night drive with his girl-friend in the Californian mountains. The technique, known as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), can amplify tiny amounts of DNA into quantities large enough for scientific analysis.

The use of genetic fingerprinting to identify criminals from a single hair or drop of blood relies on PCR to replicate a strand of DNA billions of times.

Although PCR was invented as recently as 1985, it is now the most widely used technique for analysing DNA. People who may be at risk of passing on inherited diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, can now be tested beforehand. PCR is also being used in tests for HIV infection.

Most fantastic of all, researchers have used PCR to replicate DNA preserved in amber from animals extinct for more than 20 million years. Although this is the technology upon which the plot of Jurassic Park turns, the recreation of whole dinosaurs remains strictly for Hollywood.

Michael Smith got the idea for rewriting the genetic program encoded within DNA while he was working at the Medical Research Council's world famous Laboratory for Molecular Biology (LMB), in Cambridge, in the 1970s. According to the LMB's Dr Greg Winter, Professor Smith 'found a way of altering a gene at will, giving researchers a technique of immense power'.

Professor Smith's technique has 'tended to become incorporated into the technique of PCR', according to Dr Winter. 'The two have become fused and so it's splendid that both men have got this award.'