October 06, 2010

Nobel season '10: Chemistry

In a few hours the permanent secretary general of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences will announce this year's winner(s) of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This prize is often directly connected to the most exciting basic research in molecular and cellular biology so of course I always pay extra attention. In fact, some of my favourite laureates of the past few years have received not the medicine or physiology medal, but the chemistry medal. In the last decade, six chemistry prizes (!) have been awarded to biological findings, often just as closely related to advances in our knowledge of basic biological phenomena as the medicine or physiology prize. They have included the structure and function of the ribosome, the discovery of green fluorescent protein and its applications, DNA transcription, ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation, water- and ion-channel proteins in cell membranes and methods for the analysis of biological macromolecules. I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised this year as well.

The official announcement will start streaming live on the handy nobelprize.org widget below at around 11.45 local time (9.45 GMT).

I've read that molecular chaperones, or proteins that assist in the folding and stability of other proteins, are strong contenders. Christian Anfinsen got the Nobel prize in 1972 for showing that protein folding is an inherent quality of a protein's sequence of amino acids and doesn't require any additional energy. He showed this for an enzyme that degrades RNA and related the protein folding to the function of the enzyme. But since then this view has been expanded and we now know that in certain states the folding of some proteins needs to be supported by chaperones in a process that consumes energy, otherwise the structure of the proteins would unfold. This seems like Nobel-worthy knowledge to me, and an important addition to biochemistry by mainly Arthur Horwich, John Ellis and a few other possible people.

Nuclear receptor signalling and Ronald Evans, Pierre Chambon and Elwood Jensen could also be possible contenders, although I think they would be more appropriate for the medicine or physiology price. Biological membrane vesicles and James Rothman and Randy Schekman are also tipped. Leroy Hood and collaborators would be a good choice to award DNA and protein sequencing and synthesis techniques. Marvin Caruthers is another name in the field, known for the chemistry of DNA oligonucleotide (small DNA molecules) synthesis. There's also computer modelling of the structure and dynamics of biological macromolecules, but there are quite a few names to consider there, Martin Karplus and Kendall Houk just two among them.

Then of course, it could be a discovery completely unrelated to biology.

I've also seen that different large-scale DNA-sequencing approaches, primarily shotgun sequencing, are on the map in Swedish media which I think is really strange. Firstly because Fred Sanger, who developed shotgun sequencing, is 92 years old and a double Nobel laureate in chemistry already (1958 and 1980), and secondly because the field of large-scale sequencing still hasn't peaked by any means. Perhaps Leroy Hood (again) could be considered for the development of the first automated DNA sequencer? Anyway, the technologies that are advancing the field have been developed by private companies rather than individual researchers or research groups which makes it really difficult to determine who did what. When it comes to genomics and DNA sequencing I think people are just reaching for straws to try and justify why Craig Venter should get a Nobel prize... urgh, please.

>>Update 12:48

The Nobel prize went to Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki "for palladium-catalyzed cross couplings in organic synthesis", so it didn't go to biological research. There seems to be a bit of a carbon theme this year though, considering the physics prize.

Here's some information from the Nobel website:

Organic chemistry has developed into an art form where scientists produce marvelous chemical creations in their test tubes. Mankind benefits from this in the form of medicines, ever-more precise electronics and advanced technological materials. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2010 awards one of the most sophisticated tools available to chemists today.

This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki for the development of palladium-catalyzed cross coupling. This chemical tool has vastly improved the possibilities for chemists to create sophisticated chemicals, for example carbon-based molecules as complex as those created by nature itself.

There's still a pretty cool connection to biology though, through a fascinating little organism; a marine sponge called Discoderma dissoluta. The following is from the accompanying information provided on the Nobel website.

At the end of the 1980s, scuba divers in the Caribbean Sea collected the marine sponge Discodermia dissoluta. At a depth of 33 meters (108 feet) they found a little creature that lacks eyes, a mouth, stomach and bones. At first sight it appears primitive, but its inability to escape enemies has turned Discodermia dissoluta and other marine sponges into masters of chemistry. They have a remarkable ability to produce large and complex chemical molecules that are poisonous and that prevent other organisms from exploiting them. Researchers have discovered that many of these poisons have therapeutic properties; they can function as antibiotics or as anti-viral or anti-inflammatory medicines. In the case of Discodermia dissoluta, the first laboratory tests revealed that the substance discodermolide could in the future be used as a chemotherapy drug. Among other things, it stopped cancer cells from growing in test tubes.


Finding a substance with such huge potential is a thrilling experience in itself, but without the discoveries being rewarded by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2010, the story of discodermolide would probably have ended there. Progress would have come to a halt due to a lack of material, as it is not possible to develop medicines based on a substance found only in small quantities deep in the Caribbean Sea. However, with the addition of palladium-catalyzed cross-coupling reactions to the chemist’s toolbox by Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki, scientists can now artificially produce discodermolide.

So in a way the prize went to a discovery that allows technology to mimic biology.

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