Mario Capecchi — a name every Utah resident should recognize.

Capecchi is the only Utahn ever to be honored with the Nobel Prize for contributions to knowledge. And because Capecchi works at the University of Utah, the university becomes one of only seven public universities in America to produce a Nobel Prize laureate.

Those accomplishments deserve celebration in every Utah home, school, civic club and business group.

We teach children through our behavior to respect and honor sports figures, movie stars, performers and politicians. But compared to Capecchi, those individuals are not even flickers in the fire of human existence. Americans are addicted to titillation, to the momentary rush of fleeting fame. But Capecchi changes the course of history.

If you and your children knew Capecchi, you would find him a better role model than most short-term heroes you admire. The 70-year-old scientist is bright, witty and friendly. He exercises every day, running 5 to 10 miles. He likes western music, loves animals and has a passion for self-discipline. He always wears clogs, and when the Nobel Prize Committee said he would have to wear patent-leather shoes at ceremonial events in Stockholm, he found a pair of patent-leather clogs on the Internet (thanks to a friend).

Last week, admirers and colleagues gathered to celebrate Capecchi's achievements. He insisted the guest list include outstanding science students from Utah high schools. Those students will never forget the evening ... or Capecchi's infectious smile ... or those patent-leather clogs.

He believes in tomorrow. He believes in using our intelligence to understand our world. He believes knowledge and wisdom can solve the problems around us. In other words, he shares the confidence, vision and passion so characteristic of young people. He draws strength from the young ... as should we all.

Capecchi's research already has changed the world. He revolutionized medical science. He provides a new vision of how we might treat diseases that plague human beings — cancer, heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and many more. These diseases are not caused by outside organisms — bacteria or viruses. They are attacks of the human body upon itself. Somehow, things go wrong with the body's well-tuned mechanism.

Among the thousands of genes that organize themselves into complex threads in each of our cells, some anomaly occurs. One gene or a combination of genes "turn on" when they should not ... or fail to "turn on" when they should ... or inexplicably interact with other genes to disrupt healthy cellular functions.

For example, the sun's radiation beats down on skin cells. It activates undesirable genetic signals within cells. The body's defense mechanism corrects most of the damage. But for some reason in one cell on one sunny day, the normal defense mechanism fails. The cell grows in ways it was not supposed to grow. It's the beginning of melanoma — skin cancer.

If we understood what goes wrong, we might be able to prevent it or fix it.

Capecchi found a way to target individual genes, remove them from the gene string or replace them or shift them to different locations. His work gives scientists tools they need to understand the disease process — perhaps to prevent it or treat it. Keep in mind that this gene string is so thin even powerful microscopes cannot see it, and so long that if stretched out it would easily exceed your arm span. There is such a gene string in every one of the billions of cells in your body.

Picture a large bookcase filled with hundreds of books. Cut apart each word from all those books and stack the words atop each other. The stack of words is at least a mile high. Each word represents a genetic marker. Now imagine finding one misspelled word in that stack, plucking it out and replacing it with a corrected word or a different word altogether, all without toppling the stack.

Basically, that is what Capecchi learned to do. Thousands of scientists around the world now use his technique to study living organisms. The potential for doing good multiplies with each application.

Yes, you and your family should know about Mario Capecchi. His contribution to the quality of life exceeds that of all your favorite athletes, movie stars, politicians and rap artists combined.

Dr. G. Donald Gale gave up medical school to become a writer — from suture to sentence, bowel to vowel, science to soliloquy. E-mail: [email protected]