An mRNA Advance Wins A Nobel Prize

12:17 minutes

A watercolor of a woman with a short haircut and glasses, and a bald man.
Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. Illustration credit: Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

This week, a handful of scientists scattered around the world got surprise telephone calls announcing that they will be receiving Nobel Prizes. On Monday, the prize in medicine or physiology was announced. It went to Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman, scientists who developed the modifications to mRNA that made the biomolecule a viable strategy for creating vaccines. On Tuesday, the Nobel in physics went to Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz and Anne L’Huillier, who created techniques to illuminate the movement of electrons using attosecond-length pulses of light. And on Wednesday  Moungi G. Bawendi, Louis E. Brus and Alexei I. Ekimov learned that they had won the prize in chemistry for their work with tiny bits of semiconductor material known as quantum dots. 

Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins guest host Flora Lichtman to talk about the winners and their advances, and to share other stories from the week in science, including an FCC fine for a satellite company’s space junk, concerns over drought in the Amazon rainforest, and a tale of fighting a coral-threatening algal bloom using hungry crabs.

Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman, sitting in for Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, some medical detective work and a look at a celebrity trend– preventative full-body MRI scans. But first, this week, one of the rituals of science, an early morning wake up call for scientists scattered around the world, biomedical folks on Monday, physicists on Tuesday, chemists on Wednesday. It’s Nobel Prize week. Joining me to talk about the winners and some other stories from the week in science is Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox. He’s based in Washington DC. Welcome back, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Hi, Flora. How’s it going?

FLORA LICHTMAN: Good. OK, so let’s dive into the prizes, and let’s start with medicine. Who won?

UMAIR IRFAN: The winners this year were Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman. These were the scientists that developed the modifications to make mRNA into a viable strategy for vaccines. I think at this point most of us are familiar with the impact of this work, so it stands to make a lot of sense that they were awarded for this research.

FLORA LICHTMAN: This was the key to the COVID vaccines.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. So compared to conventional vaccines– those are vaccines that typically use fragments of viruses that are introduced to the body– the mRNA vaccine rather uses instructions for making a part of the virus. That makes it a lot more versatile and faster in terms of development. The challenge with mRNA, though, is that it’s a very fragile molecule, that a lot of our body’s defenses destroy it very easily. It degrades very rapidly.

And so the challenge is try to making sure that it can actually be delivered intact and then be disposed of after it’s done its job.

FLORA LICHTMAN: I read that it took some convincing to get people on board with this technology, that they’d been working on this for a very long time.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. This is, obviously, a long-running process, decades of research. The challenge, though, is that with vaccines, because they’re administered to so many people around the world, the standard for performance is actually very, very high. And a lot of people really did not want to upset the conventional techniques that basically, in order to do something different, the new technique had to be a lot better and prove itself to meet the same standards or exceed them.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Yeah, It’s hard to break the mold. I love this prize because it’s very personal to me. It’s inside of me. f feel like it’s less abstract than sometimes the Nobel prizes can be. What about the physics prize?

UMAIR IRFAN: The prize in physics this year went to Pierre Agostini, Ferenc Krausz, and Anne L’Huillier. These were scientists that developed a technique to illuminate subatomic particles. Basically, they were using strobe lights, or very tiny pulses of laser light, measured in attoseconds. This is one quintillionth of a second. And by flashing light very, very quickly, they could image electrons.

FLORA LICHTMAN: It’s almost like they developed the flash on the camera that can take pictures of electrons.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Just imagine the most high-speed camera that you could use at a subatomic level to take pictures of these particles. The technique is now used to help advance fundamental science, just basically understanding the basic physics of electrons. But in the future, scientists say that it could help us develop better materials, better electronics, better batteries, and potentially medical diagnostics as well.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Let’s go to the chemistry prize.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. The chemistry award this year went to three scientists– Moungi Bawendi, Louis Brus, and Alexei Ekimov. These scientists developed quantum dots. Quantum dots are very tiny bits of semiconductor material, just about a few nanometers across. The unique trait, though, is that they effectively can confine electrons. And once you can bottle up an electron, you can do a lot of interesting things with it.

They can do a lot of interesting experiments. But we’re already seeing quantum dots being deployed for their unique lighting and electric properties. They’re things that can be used in developing LCD and LED displays in televisions and things like that. But they can also be used to make things like more efficient solar panels.

FLORA LICHTMAN: So I might have quantum dots around me right now.

UMAIR IRFAN: I would not know that for certain. Depending on what kind of device and how expensive it is that you’re looking at, I don’t know how sophisticated the computer you’re working on is, but.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Never mind. It’s probably not a quantum dot then.

UMAIR IRFAN: But again, part of it is that it’s cheap. And that means that it could be ubiquitous quickly.

FLORA LICHTMAN: OK. In more applied technology, a fine for space littering, tell me about that.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. If you were hoping that you could just dump your garbage in space and hope no one would notice, the Federal Communications Commission wants everyone to know that they’re paying attention. Just this week, the FCC, they handed out their first of a kind fine for, basically, space littering. This was handed out to Dish Network for failing to uphold what they called a debris mitigation plan. Basically, there’s this old satellite that Dish Network operated, and they were supposed to use their last remaining fuel to put it about 190 miles above its current orbit.

But they miscalculated and only got about 75 miles above that orbit, meaning that the satellite is still in an area where it could potentially collide with other satellites. The company now will have to pay a $150,000 fine. And the penalty is maybe a sign of things to come as low Earth orbit gets more crowded, as we see more satellites being launched into space, the chances of collisions and damage and just junk being up there that can cause havoc is becoming a bigger concern.

FLORA LICHTMAN: What does this mean for companies like SpaceX, who are putting up tons and tons of Starlink satellites?

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s one of the big concerns looking forward. So the first generation of satellites, they were fairly big discreet objects, and many of them are coming up on retirement age. But this new generation of small satellites, these microsatellites, that’s even more concerning because they may not have the fuel to actually burn themselves up or get themselves out of the way of other satellites if there’s a collision risk. And the worry is now that you have so many of these smaller satellites, they’re going to be much harder to dispose of when they do reach the ends of their lives.

FLORA LICHTMAN: All right, let’s get back down to Earth. You have a story about how the electric grid fared this summer and how it may fare in the months ahead. Tell me about it.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. Just about everybody experienced a fairly hot summer this year. The United States saw its hottest July on record. And as everybody went inside and tried to cool off, they turned on their air conditioners. They turned on their fans.

That pushed power demand to record high levels across the country. But in that period of record high electricity demand, for the most part, the US didn’t see blackouts. Now, the question is, is this a resounding victory? Or was this a narrowly avoided disaster?

The experts that I talked to said it’s a little bit of both, that many grid operators were able to anticipate that this summer would be very hot and that they were able to plan and procure extra power. But if you’re in many parts of the country, you may have gotten an alert from your power provider, asking you to turn down electricity. It did actually get pretty dicey, and they had to issue emergency alerts to try to keep the lights on.

So the US narrowly avoided disaster this summer. And many grid operators are saying that they have to start paying attention now to what’s going to happen this winter because, while demand may not be as high as the summer, electricity demand is rising in the winter time as well. The big factors here are things like electric vehicles– we’re seeing more of those plugging into the grid– but also people switching from gas to electric furnaces and stoves. So that’s pushing up electricity demand.

Meanwhile, in the winter time, there’s less solar power on the grid. There’s less wind power. And many power plants are scheduled for maintenance in the winter. So supply is constrained there as well.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Speaking of electric vehicles, you have a story about electric school buses. Tell me about that news.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. My colleague Rebecca Leber has been following this story for a while. Basically, the entire school bus fleet in the United States, roughly 500,000 buses, over the next two decades are going to turn over. Basically just about every one of them is going to be replaced. And these buses typically run on diesel engines. These diesel motors, they put out a lot of pollution. They smell bad. And this has been a target for a lot of communities for trying to clean up exposures for pollution for their children.

One way of doing that is, of course, to electrify school buses, that basically turning them to run on electricity. That can get rid of that pollution but also save operating costs. The trade, though, is that electric buses generally are more expensive than diesel buses. And so it’s been a tough sell for a lot of school districts that are short on money to switch over to electric buses just yet.

FLORA LICHTMAN: OK. Zooming out, we’ve been hearing about extreme weather all over the world, but I read there’s a drought in the Amazon, which seems especially alarming, given that the word rain is in rain forest. What’s happening there?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. There’s a severe drought along the Amazon River. And it’s having some pretty severe consequences. Just this week, people found 120 river dolphin corpses floating in one of the tributaries to the rivers. The Amazon River is also an important conduit. People use boats to traverse it.

There are no bridges across the Amazon River. So when the water levels dip low, people actually end up stranded in many parts of the rainforest because they can’t get around as easily. There are a few factors at play this year. The big one is just that it’s been an exceptionally hot year. We were just talking about a very hot summer here in North America.

It was also a very hot winter at the same time in South America. Brazil saw triple digit temperatures during its winter. And now it’s heading into its spring and summer. So temperatures are going to get hot and stay hot. That means that there’s going to be less water in the river as they enter their dry season.

But there’s also the El Niño this year. That tends to disrupt rainfall over the Amazon. And another factor is deforestation. Trees actually play an important role in cycling water in the Amazon rainforest in terms of generating its own rainfall. And as that tree cover gets depleted, that can also lead to less rainfall in other parts of the rainforest. And so we’re seeing these long-term and short-term trends converging right now.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Wow. Well, let’s end on something a little bit more hopeful. You have a story about saving a coral reef with the aid of crabs. This sounds like the making of a Disney movie.

UMAIR IRFAN: I think it’s the making of an action movie. Scientists are training this crack team of crustaceans to rescue the coral reefs. They’re being faced right now with record high water temperatures. The corals are bleaching. Algae is spreading everywhere.

And now it’s up to these heroes in carapaces to eat that algae. And that’s exactly the strategy that they’re deploying here. So a team of scientists found that Caribbean king crabs, they eat seaweeds at rates that exceed basically all other invertebrates. And they found that, if you have just one crab on a reef, it has dramatic effects in terms of seaweed cover. And that allows the coral to better populate, to better breathe, and to grow, and that helps them recover from these kinds of bleaching events very quickly.

So what scientists are doing are is raising these crabs in these laboratories in tanks, essentially, but also coaching them on how to survive in the real world before they send them there. And so they’re basically trying to introduce some elements of the natural environment and also teaching them to be afraid of predators. And the way they do that is by putting hand puppets into the tank to try to scare the crabs so they learn to avoid certain kinds of fish. And then that way, later this year, when they start putting these crabs into the reef, they’ll be able to hit the ground running and actually get to work, saving the reef.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hit the ground crawling, yeah. This story has everything I want in a science story– crustaceans, hand puppets. And I agree. I think you’re right– action movie, mission unbleachable.

UMAIR IRFAN: I think we might have to workshop that title a little bit, but yes.

FLORA LICHTMAN: [LAUGHS] Umair Irfan is a staff writer at Vox. He’s based in Washington DC. Thanks for being with me today.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Flora.

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