The Nobel Prize for “click chemistry”, with a very rare double winner

published Wednesday 05 October 2022 at 4:57 pm

They have opened up new areas with a “Lego” of chemistry: the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday crowned the Danish Morten Meldal, the American Carolyn Bertozzi and her compatriot Barry Sharpless, who achieved the very rare feat of winning a second Nobel Prize. 21 years apart.

The trio is awarded “for the development of + click + chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry”, used in particular to develop the best pharmaceutical treatments, including against cancer, the jury announced in its decision.

Barry Sharpless, 81, is only the fifth person to win a Nobel Prize twice. He had already won the chemistry prize in 2001 for his discoveries on the asymmetric catalysis technique.

The Franco-Polish Marie Curie had been the first in the early 20th century (physics 1903, chemistry 1911), followed much later by the American Linus Pauling (chemistry 1954 and peace 1962), the American John Bardeen (physics 1956 and 1972) and the British Frederick Sanger (chemistry 1958 and 1980).

– Eighth Woman in Chemistry –

The latter is used in particular to develop pharmaceutical treatments, map DNA or create new materials.

The 55-year-old American Carolyn Bertozzi is sacred for the invention of “bioorthogonal” chemistry, a set of chemical reactions that can be initiated in a living organism, but without altering its chemical nature.

“You can take two Legos and snap them together, even if they’re surrounded by millions of similar toy pieces. And they won’t click with each other,” explained the winner, who has been developing the technique since the 1990s. , in an interview with AFP.

“Carolyn Bertozzi took the chemistry of clicks to another level,” praised the jury.

In 121 years since winning the Nobel Prize, the Stanford professor becomes the eighth woman to win the chemistry prize, succeeding Frenchwoman Emmanuelle Charpentier and American Jennifer Doudna (2020).

“I am happy to increase this figure a little. I understand the gravity of it, I who have been an underrepresented person in science all my life,” the winner told AFP.

The American is nicknamed “the rock star of science,” Benjamin Schumann, a chemist at Imperial College who did his thesis in his lab, told AFP.

Both because of his “absolute genius”, he explains, but also because he was at the keyboard in a group called “Bored of Education” (“Bored by education”) where he played with future Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

After a very masculine 2021 vintage (12 men and one woman, none for scientific awards), 2022 has continued on this trend so far, with the Nobel Prize winners of the Swedish Svante Päabo in medicine and Alain Aspect (France), John Clauser (USA ) and Anton Zeilinger (Austria) in physics.

“We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg, but their chemistry will change the world,” Angela Wilson, president of the American Chemical Society, told AFP.

– Legs shaking –

“Start-ups are starting to use these technologies, but I think we are only at the beginning of the uses. I think it will revolutionize everything from medicine to materials,” he said.

The Danish winner told a press conference about his “big surprise” when he received the famous phone call from Stockholm, shortly before the announcement.

The day before, he and his students had voted on who would win the Nobel this year, and Bertozzi won.

“So he got the award last night (Tuesday) and me today (Wednesday),” he jokes.

Like the other Nobel laureates, the Chemistry Prize is endowed with 10 million crowns (approximately 920,000 euros), to be divided among the co-winners.

The Nobel week continues with the two most anticipated prizes, that of literature on Thursday and that of peace on Friday, the only one awarded in Oslo. Then the most recent economic price, Monday.

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