Geneticist who unmasked lives of ancient humans wins the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine


This year’s prize is a GREAT example of what a Nobel Prize can be (or should be) — or what it has been, at least a few times over past decades [i.e., someone with a CRAZY idea that goes against the grain, he/she is convinced that they know they are correct, and they continue fighting the ~95 or 99% “consensus thinking” (or “groupthink”) who are certain he/she is wrong (or crazy). And then, after several, or many years, it turns out that the consensus groupthink was wrong — all along] … !!

Off the top of my head, three particularly outstanding examples come to mind.

[1] Barbara McClintock published her first paper on “jumping genes” in maize (genetic studies in corn; Bloomington, Indiana) in 1968 and her classic article in Proc Natl Acad Sci USA in 1960 — but she was regarded mostly as a “weirdo” and often laughed at, at scientific meetings. By the mid-1960s, steps leading from DNA transcription into mRNA, and translation of the messenger RNA into the amino acid sequences that make proteins, became well established (i.e., the genetic code was finally broken). Genes were no longer abstract concepts, but rather discrete molecular entities that could be manipulated in a test tube.

Mobile genetic elephants were then discovered in bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) Soon, mobile elements were also discovered in bacteria, and eventually in the fruit fly Drosophila. The consensus scientific community gradually recognized that these “transposons” were real, and they were not just peculiar to maize, but were in fact widespread across species. McClintock was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology — 35 years after her first published report of “transposition of genetic units”…!!

[2] “Mad cow disease,” and the human equivalent Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease — in the 1970s were degenerative brain diseases of unknown cause. After ~10 years of experiments, neurologist Stanley Prusiner reported in 1982 that these diseases were caused by a virus-like protein which he named “prion” (derived from “protein” and “infectious”). Almost every scientist laughed, because “viruses were well known ‘always’ to be made of DNA or RNA.” Prusiner persisted, however, because he was convinced the consensus groupthink was wrong, and that he was right. He proved to be correct and was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for his novel discovery. Prions are now realized to have effects in tissues other than brain and, in fact, are found even in lower organisms such as yeast…!!

[3] For decades, peptic ulcer was believed by consensus groupthink to be caused by “mental stress and excess stomach acid.” Following many years of experiments, physicians Barry Marshall and Robin Warren reported in 1985 that peptic ulcer was caused by a bacterium, Heliobacter pylori…!! This finding forever changed the field of ulcer research: instead of treating ulcers with antacid medications and/or surgery, antibiotics could now kill the bacteria and cure the disease…!! Twenty years later, Marshall and Warren were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for this breakthrough.

Moral of the Story: If you know what you’ve found something very real, and you’re convinced that the consensus groupthink does NOT appreciate your breakthrough findings — stick to your guns, and (hopefully) “everything will eventually come out in the wash” and you will be eventually credited for that breakthrough. 😊


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