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  • Writer's pictureHirokazu Kobayashi

Research: Is it bad to be ranked second?*

Updated: 6 days ago

Hirokazu Kobayashi

CEO, Green Insight Japan, Inc.

Professor Emeritus and Visiting Professor, University of Shizuoka


High intelligence and curiosity are innate human traits that lead to the pursuit of research. This pursuit inevitably leads to competition, especially in areas tied to military and financial gain, though not limited to those areas. Here are a few notable examples: Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin in 1921, but at about the same time, Nicolae Paulescu was conducting similar research independently. Paulescu's results were published almost simultaneously with Banting and Best's, causing controversy, but ultimately, Banting and Best's contributions were widely recognized. When James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins conducted similar research. In particular, Franklin's X-ray diffraction data played a crucial role in Watson and Crick's model. From the late 1950s to the 1960s, Oliver Sacks and Irwin Aldof conducted research demonstrating dopamine's importance. Sacks' clinical research had a significant impact, but other researchers made similar discoveries simultaneously, leading to a race to establish treatments.


The simultaneous development of similar research topics is inevitable. Modern scientific research is based on technological methodologies. Once a method is developed, several researchers may apply it to unsolved problems simultaneously. In the 1970s, techniques for cloning DNA fragments and determining DNA sequences advanced, leading to an explosion of understanding of the genetic background of many biological activities. Beginning in 1983, I spent nearly two years studying plant gene expression as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. Much biological activity can be explained in terms of protein function. In the photosynthetic reaction, organisms use sunlight to synthesize sugars from atmospheric carbon dioxide; the enzyme that fixes the carbon dioxide is called Rubisco. This enzyme consists of sixteen units that must be assembled correctly to form an active structure. How this assembly process occurs has been a mystery. In 1985, as an assistant professor at Nagoya University, I led an effort to solve this problem. Using E. coli, a model microorganism unrelated to photosynthesis, we expressed the genes for these subunits and successfully formed an active sixteen-unit structure. Excited, I wanted to publish our findings in Nature, a leading scientific journal. However, the editors informed us that a similar paper was scheduled for publication, so our work was published in another rapid communication journal. Later, I moved to the University of Shizuoka. In 1997, we were the first to elucidate the DNA sequence of the "sigma factor," essential for regulating Rubisco gene expression in photosynthesis. This achievement was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where many Nobel Prize-winning studies appear. This research was conducted simultaneously in four laboratories worldwide, creating a competition.


Watson and Crick are almost divine for researchers like me who study genes and their expression mechanisms. Their achievements, along with Wilkins, earned them the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. Watson later became director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. This lab holds frequent research meetings, and Watson (nicknamed Jim) occasionally makes impromptu appearances at the famous outdoor wine parties. I met him twice. Crick, on the other hand, was a fellow at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California. When I visited the Salk Institute, I was shown a car with a "DNA" license plate that belonged to Crick. Watson's uninhibited nature is believed to have led to his outstanding achievements, and because of this, the world has often criticized his subsequent actions and statements. I hear that Watson, now 96, is still in good health.

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