Field of Science

Chemistry Nobel Prizes redux

In tribute to tomorrow's impending chemistry Nobel Prize, I thought I would repost a slightly updated list of predictions.

1. Computational chemistry and biochemistry (Difficult):
Pros: Computational chemistry as a field has not been recognized since 1999 so the time seems due. One obvious candidate would be Martin Karplus. Another would be Norman Allinger, the pioneer of molecular mechanics.
Cons: This would definitely be a lifetime achievement award. Karplus did do the first MD simulation of a protein ever but that by itself wouldn’t command a Nobel Prize. The other question is regarding what field exactly the prize would honor. If it’s specifically applications to biochemistry, then Karplus alone would probably suffice. But if the prize is for computational methods and applications in general, then others would also have to be considered, most notably Allinger but perhaps also Ken Houk who has been foremost in applying such methods to organic chemistry. Another interesting candidate is David Baker whose program Rosetta has really produced some fantastic results in predicting protein structure and folding. It even spawned a cool game. But the field is probably too new for a prize and would have to be further validated by other people before it's recognized.

2. Chemical biology and chemical genetics (Easy)
Another favorite for years, with Stuart Schreiber and Peter Schultz being touted as leading candidates.
Pros: The general field has had a significant impact on basic and applied science
Cons: This again would be more of a lifetime achievement award which is rare. Plus, there are several individuals in recent years (Cravatt, Bertozzi, Shokat) who have contributed to the field. It may make some sense to award Schreiber a ‘pioneer’ award for raising ‘awareness’ but that’s sure going to make a lot of people unhappy. Also, a prize for chemical biology might be yet another one whose time has just passed.

3. Single-molecule spectroscopy (Easy)
Pros: The field has obviously matured and is now a powerful tool for exploring everything from nanoparticles to DNA. It’s been touted as a candidate for years. The frontrunners seem to be W E Moerner and M Orrit, although Richard Zare has also been floated often.
Cons: The only con I can think of is that the field might yet be too new for a prize

4. Electron transfer in biological systems (Easy)
Pros: Another field which has matured and has been well-validated. Gray and Bard seem to be leading candidates.
Cons: Although electron transfer in biological systems is important, Gray and Bard's discoveries don't seem to have the ring of fundamental importance that, say, Marcus's electron transfer theory has, nor do they seem to be widely utilized by other chemists in the way that, say, palladium catalyzed reactions are.

Among other fields, I don’t really see a prize for the long lionized birth pill and Carl Djerassi; although we might yet be surprised, the time just seems to have passed. Then there are fields which seem too immature for the prize; among these are molecular machines (Stoddart et al.) and solar cells (Gratzel).

5. Statins (Difficult)
Akira Endo’s name does not seem to have been discussed much. Endo discovered the first statin. Although this particular compound was not a blockbuster drug, since then statins have revolutionized the treatment of heart disease.
Pros: The “importance” as described in Nobel’s will is obvious since statins have become the best-selling drugs in history. It also might be a nice statement to award the prize to the discovery of a drug for a change. Who knows, it might even boost the image of a much maligned pharmaceutical industry...
Cons: The committee is not really known for awarding actual drug discovery. Precedents like Alexander Fleming (antibiotics), James Black (beta blockers, antiulcer drugs) and Gertrude Elion (immunosuppresants, anticancer agents) exist but are far and few in between. On the other hand this fact might make a prize for drug discovery overdue.

6. DNA fingerprinting and synthesis (Easy)
Now this seems to me to be very much a field from the "obvious" category. The impact of DNA fingerprinting and Western and Southern Blots on pure and applied science- everything from discovering new drugs to hunting down serial killers- is at least as big as the prizeworthy PCR. I think the committee would be doing itself a favor by honoring Jeffreys, Stark, Burnette and Southern.

And while we are on DNA, I think it's also worth throwing in Marvin Caruthers whose technique for DNA synthesis really transformed the field. In fact it would be nice to award a dual kind of prize for DNA- for both synthesis and diagnosis.

Cons: Picking three might be tricky.

7. GPCR structures (Difficult)
When the latest GPCR structure (the first one of a GPCR bound to a G protein) came out I remember remarking that Kobilka, Stevens and Palczewski are probably up for a prize sometime.
Palczewski solved the first structure of rhodopsin and Stevens and Kobilka have been churning out structure after important structure over the last decade, including the first structure of an active receptor along with several medicinally important ones including the dopamine D3 and CXCR4 receptors. These feats are definitely technical tour de forces.
Pros: GPCR's are clearly important for basic and applied science, especially drug discovery where 30% of drugs already target these proteins. Plus, structural biology has often been awarded a Nobel so there's lots of precedents (hemoglobin, potassium channel, ATPase etc.)
Cons: Probably too early.

Other predictions: Canine Ed, Sam@EverydayScientist


  1. Swing and a miss.

    Quasicrystals, interesting choice.


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