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A 2018 Nobel Laureate did a formative part of his research at Duke

Although Duke University did not win a Nobel Prize this year, it still has a stake in the glory. 

George P. Smith, curators' distinguished professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, worked at Duke from 1983 to 1984 doing research on bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria. He is now a Nobel Laureate after sharing one-fourth of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his phage display technology.

“George is a very intelligent, sharp individual," said Robert Webster, professor emeritus of biochemistry at Duke, whose lab Smith worked in during his time at the University. "He thought of all of this and came up with it himself. I just gave him a place to work and funded it for a while.” 

The technique he developed allows for the expression of a protein on the outside of a phage by artificially inserting the corresponding protein sequence into the gene that codes for a phage’s coat protein. Researchers could then analyze how this protein interacts with others, a technique that can be applied to immunizations and vaccines.

Frances Arnold—Linus Pauling professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology—received one-half of the prize, and Gregory Winter—master of Trinity College at Cambridge—received one-fourth.

Webster explained that when Smith’s wife, Marjorie Sable, started taking courses at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he reached out to Webster to research in his lab on sabbatical. Webster’s own research focused bacteriophages with single-stranded DNA—specifically how the phage proteins were assembled as the DNA passed through the cell membrane. 

This closely aligned with Smith’s interest in phages and their DNA. 

Smith first tried to express random proteins on the bacteriophage by inserting foreign DNA fragments into a gene for a protein on the phage's surface and found that the gene was then expressed as random pieces of protein inserted into the normal surface protein, Webster added.

Motivated by an interest in immunology, Smith then obtained antibodies—proteins that bind to another specific protein—for a protein called EcoRI. Coincidentally, the donor of these antibodies was Paul Modrich, James B. Duke professor of biochemistry, who would later go on to share the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 

Using these antibodies, Smith was able to fish out a set of proteins on the phage surfaces resembling part of the EcoRI protein. 

As colleagues with very similar research interests, Webster said that he and Smith still keep in touch. They attend meetings about phage display technology alongside other colleagues in their field and discuss the significant implications for the study of molecular recognition. 


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