Last summer, as I interviewed Aaron Ciechanover, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2004, his country was at war. Three Israeli boys had just been murdered in the West Bank by Palestinians, then a Palestinian boy had been burned to death in retribution by Israelis. While we sat in his lab at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, to the north of the bombs, missiles were flying over Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and a Gaza invasion loomed. The mounting conflict troubled but didn’t ruffle Ciechanover, one of Israel’s greatest scientists and statesmen, who patiently and colorfully explained to me one of biology’s most remarkable processes, how a molecular Pac-Man races through our bodies and devours damaged cells.
For over 40 years, Ciechanover has worked to understand these molecular machines, called shredders. Built around a core molecule called ubiquitin, shredders destroy ruined proteins so that our bodies can replace them with fresh parts and not, says Ciechanover, rot like a side of meat, “brownish-greenish and stinking,” in the sun. Ciechanover shared the Nobel Prize with Avram Hershko, his mentor at Technion, and Irwin Rose, a biochemist at the University of California, Irvine. Scientists already understood the genetic code, how genes coded for the creation of proteins. But the shredder helped control the overall process: the degradation of damaged goods, DNA repair, cell division, and immune defense. The shredder enabled biologists to see the wizard behind the screen.
Ciechanover speaks with boundless enthusiasm and charm. He has a great writer’s ability to turn complex subjects into compelling stories. English teachers should study his use of metaphor. The cars he once owned and the places he lived are represented through objects and replicas on his office shelves: a yellow cab from New York City, a series of Tonka Trucks, newly bought from Toys-R-Us in Times Square, to replace the ones he lost during the turbulent moves of childhood. “Toys let us fly on the wings of imagination even though they are very simple,” he says.
For Ciechanover, becoming a great scientist is about the ability to find connections in life and unite them in a singular voice. Doing science, he says, is “like studying in a very good chef’s school in Paris. You don’t do what the chef told you to do, but you use the principles that you learned. You open your own restaurant. And then, it’s up to your imagination what you make.” Almost as much as he loves science, Ciechenover loves Haifa where he was born. He shows me two photos of an identical scene of the city, one taken by day and the other by night. “It’s beautiful here,” he says.” Then he adds, “Pam, enjoy the rest of your stay. Just be careful of the missiles and you’ll be fine.”