Three scientists who fuelled a revolution in chemistry by devising a way to “click” molecules together like Lego bricks, even inside living organisms, have been awarded the 2022 Nobel prize in chemistry.
Carolyn Bertozzi, at Stanford University, Morten Meldal, at the University of Copenhagen, and K Barry Sharpless, from Scripps Research in California, were honoured for finding and exploiting elegant and efficient chemical reactions to create complex molecules for the pharmaceutical industry, mapping DNA and making designer materials.
The award, announced on Wednesday by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, is worth 10m Swedish krona (£804,000), and will be shared equally among the winners.
The Nobel committee said the prize was given “for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry”.
Prof Olof Ramström, a member of the Nobel chemistry committee, described the award as “a fantastic prize for a fantastic discovery”.
“They have been working on methods to try to connect molecules, to connect building blocks so they click together very simply and straightforwardly, in essentially the same way as you build Lego,” he said.
“You can have the Lego pieces and you can click them together and build very advanced houses, or tools, or vehicles, even spaceships. It’s the same with this chemistry, although at the very, very, molecular level.”
While Nobel honours are rare enough, the prize puts Sharpless in the even more exclusive club of double winners. It is his second Nobel prize in chemistry, his first being in 2001 for work on “chirally catalysed oxidation reactions”. Four other scientists have won two Nobels, namely John Bardeen, Marie Curie, Linus Pauling and Fred Sanger.
Dr Phillip Broadwith, from the Royal Society of Chemistry’s magazine Chemistry World, said the prize had been predicted for years. “It’s about having ultimate control over chemical reactions,” he said.
Sharpless coined the term “click chemistry” to describe reactions that are fast, high-yielding and clean, meaning that they do not produce a lot of unwanted side-products, Broadwith said. One of the first “click reactions”, the copper catalysed azide-alkyne cycloaddition, was discovered independently by Sharpless and Meldal and had sprouted its own branch of synthetic chemistry, he added.
Prof Johan Åqvist, the chair of the Nobel committee, likened click chemistry to attaching small chemical buckles to molecular building blocks so they can be linked together. The trick, he said, was to find buckles that bound to each other, and only each other.
Bertozzi drew on click chemistry to develop “bioorthogonal” reactions that operate safely inside living organisms without disrupting their biochemistry. The breakthrough allowed scientists to track the movement of biomolecules in cells and so tease apart the complex workings of life.
In a press call, Bertozzi said she was “absolutely stunned” to receive the news from Stockholm. “I’m sitting here, I can hardly breathe,” she said.
The reactions developed by the winners have led scientists to make new types of biomolecules and create materials that can deliver cancer drugs precisely where they are needed in human patients.
Prof Gill Reid, the president of the Royal Society of Chemistry said of the winners. “Their work has incredible potential for applications in human health and medicines and the possibilities are incredibly exciting.”
Bertozzi is only the eighth woman to win the chemistry prize in Nobel history. In 2020, Prof Emmanuelle Charpentier, director of the Max Planck Research Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, and Prof Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, became the first two women to share the chemistry prize for work on the “molecular scissors” used to edit genetic code.
On Monday, the Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for his pioneering work on ancient DNA, in particular sequencing the genetic code of the Neanderthal, an extinct relative of modern humans.
The physics prize was awarded on Tuesday to three scientists who performed groundbreaking experiments on quantum entanglement – the phenomenon famously described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”. Their work laid the foundations for burgeoning research into quantum computers, quantum networks and quantum encrypted communications.