1979 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award

Technology for sequencing DNA

Each of the trillions of DNA molecules in the body is made up of four nucleotides—chemical bases arranged in chains of varying sequences and lengths—which spell out the "letters" of a genetic "message." It is the sequence of these DNA nucleotides which determines the many chemical processes of life.

Walter Gilbert created a new technique for the rapid sequencing of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genetic material in the cells of all living things—the chemical blueprint for all life processes.

Dr. Gilbert and Dr. Frederick Sanger have independently developed different methods for the rapid sequencing of DNA. The method developed by Dr. Gilbert employs chemical reagents to break the DNA molecules into fragments, in such a way as to determine their sequence.

As a result of Dr. Gilbert's technique, the information in several hundreds links in the DNA chain can be "read" at one time, and it is even possible to read DNA information in chains which are tens of thousands of links long. Thus scientists can now quickly arrive at specific knowledge as to the structure of genes. Furthermore, researchers may be able to establish a basic DNA defect that results in a particular genetic disease, and may someday even re-structure the abnormal gene, restore the pattern and eliminate the disease.

Another example of the application of this rapid sequencing is in connection with production of protein hormones. Rapid sequencing may facilitate future applications of recombinant DNA technology which has already been used to produce the human protein hormones: somatostatin; human growth hormone to treat dwarfism; and human insulin to treat diabetes.

Frederick Sanger devised a speeded-up technique for the rapid sequencing of DNA molecules. Dr. Sanger's technique employs enzymatic reaction in its sequencing.

This new scientific method is enabling scientists to "read" rapidly the genetic information that controls all the chemical life processes, and to elucidate the way the information system in DNA works.

As a result of Dr. Sanger's work, scientists can now use this procedure to study complex DNA molecules, and especially those portions of the DNA molecule known as genes.

A fragment of DNA which previously required two years to sequence can now be done in about one day. Thus, this technique has greatly accelerated the pace of research in molecular biology laboratories all over the world.

In the 1950s, Dr. Sanger concentrated on the sequencing of proteins; in the 1960s on the sequencing of RNA; and in the 1970s on the sequencing of DNA. His sequencing in the 1950s of the hormone insulin helped to initiate a surge of scientific activity which has led to the laboratory production, through recombinant DNA techniques, of important human hormones, thus promising plentiful and inexpensive supplies of insulin for treating diabetes, and other proteins of medical importance.

The decoding of genetic information, as a result of the rapid sequencing of the constituent parts of a gene, has already led to a better understanding of how the message system works. Its future possibilities include identifying the genetic basis of certain disease states, and the possibility of correcting aberrant genes to restore their normal pattern. Dr. Sanger's elegant research contributions may accelerate the research of scientists into the biology of DNA viruses, including herpes, causing shingles and chicken pox; and the adenoviruses, responsible for many upper respiratory infections, such as virus pneumonia.

To Dr. Gilbert, one of the most productive and innovative molecular biologists of our time, and to Dr. Sanger, who created a new procedure of great brilliance and ingenuity, which will help to hasten the day for the conquest of diseases, this 1979 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award is given.