Two US scientists, Andrew Fire and Craig Mello, yesterday won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering how to silence malfunctioning genes, a breakthrough which could lead to an era of new therapies to reverse crippling disease.
"This year's Nobel laureates have discovered a fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information," the jury declared.
Their discovery, called "RNA interference" and which occurs in plants, animals and humans, was published in 1998.
That leaves a bare eight years between publication and a Nobel award, which approximates to a record for fast-track recognition. A Nobel is typically awarded decades later, when history proves that the research was truly groundbreaking.
"RNA interference is already being widely used in basic science as a method to study the function of genes and it may lead to novel therapies in the future," the jury said.
Mello said he was stunned by the Nobel Committee's speedy recognition.
"I was very surprised, mainly because I'm fairly young and I thought maybe there were so many other discoveries worthy of a Nobel prize," Mello, born in 1960 and a professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told Swedish Radio.
"I just assumed it was something that might come several years from now," he said just after receiving a telephone call from the Nobel committee in the middle of the night. "It's still sinking in I think, I can hardly believe it."
Fire, a 47-year-old professor at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, said he was "very happy" to be honored.
"At first of course one doesn't believe it. It could be a dream or a mistake," he told the radio station.