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Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2022 winners Barry Sharpless, Morten Meldal and Carolyn R. Bertozzie. © Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2022 winners Barry Sharpless, Morten Meldal and Carolyn R. Bertozzie. © Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of SciencesImage: Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
ScienceGlobal issues

Nobel Prize: Trio wins 2022 award for 'click chemistry'

Fred Schwaller
October 5, 2022

Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing a way of "snapping molecules together.''

https://p.dw.com/p/4HX4C

Americans Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless, and Denmark's Morten Meldal have won this year's Nobel Prize for chemistry for their work in developing "click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry," Sweden's Karolinska Institute announced on Wednesday.

The award marks the second Nobel for 81-year-old Sharpless, who won the chemistry Nobel in 2001. 

Co-winner Bertozzi hopes the prize will be energizing for the field.

"The interface between chemistry and biology is such a rich interface with great technology development and fundamental science discovery. But it’s now time to reflect on how fortunate I’ve been with them and share the celebrations," she told journalists in an interview on Wednesday.

Stockholm Nobel Prize for Chemistry
Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2022 winners Barry Sharpless, Morten Meldal and Carolyn R. Bertozzie.Image: Christine Olsson/TT/picture alliance

Click chemistry already being used to create new drugs and materials

Click chemistry is as it sounds — the process of snapping molecular building blocks together to build larger and more complex molecules. Sharpless coined the term around the year 2000, shortly before he received his first Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001, referring to simple and reliable chemical reactions that avoid unwanted by-products.

Working independently, Meldal and Sharpless later presented the first click chemical reaction – the copper catalyzed azide-alkyne cycloaddition.

Click chemistry has already had a major impact on medical research and materials sciences. The concept has been used to build new drug molecules, polymers and materials.

The field is still in its early days, but prize co-winner Bertozzi said "there are many new reactions to be discovered and invented."

For example, click chemistry can be used to click in substances that conduct electricity, capture sunlight, are antibacterial, protect from ultraviolet radiation or have other desirable properties.

 "The discovery of click chemistry has accelerated the field into an era of functionalism," the Nobel Prize Committee stated in a press release.

Bioorthogonal reactions great boon for medicine

Co-winner Bertozzi took click chemistry to a new level by using the concept to create reactions inside living organisms. She called them biorthogonal reactions, which refers to a reaction that occurs in living systems without disrupting their native processes.

 "What set us down the path of developing biorthogonal chemistry was an interest in visualizing molecules that no one has been able to see," Bertozzi said.

Bertozzi first used the technique to visualize glycans, a type of molecule that coats the surface of cells. She used click chemistry to study how glycans behave under the microscope.

"We learned all kinds of interesting things about the function of glycans which eventually led to the idea of a new cancer immune therapy," she said.

As with click chemistry, biorthogonal reactions have already been widely applied in chemistry, biology, and medical research. 

"There are two main types of applications of biorthogonal reactions. One is as a discovery tool to discover new molecules [like new drugs to treat diseases]. The second impact is in medicine, particularly drug delivery, like making sure drugs go to the right place and away from the wrong places," Bertozzi said.

fluoroescence microscope
Scientists can use bioorthogonal reactions to track molecules in living organisms with fluoroescence microscopesImage: imago stock&people

Most prestigious award

The Nobel Prize is considered the most prestigious award in the fields it's awarded. Notable winners in chemistry have included Ernst Rutherford for his discovery of the element radon and Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their work on CRISPR genome editing.

The three science prizes always take the first three days in a week of Nobel Prizes, with physiology and medicine on Monday, physics on Tuesday and chemistry on Wednesday. The Nobel Prizes for literature, peace, and economic sciences follow from Thursday.

Benjamin List and David MacMillan won the chemistry prize last year for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis, a novel tool for the construction of molecules.

Both this year and last year's chemistry prizes both credit work on building molecules.

This year's winners receive a cash prize of 10 million Swedish kroner (about €920,000; $914,000), a Nobel medal and world fame. The prizes will be handed out at a gala dinner in December.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna
In 2020, Emmanuelle Charpentier und Jennifer Doudna became the sixth and seventh women in history to earn a Nobel Prize in chemistry for their contribution to the development of CRISPR gene editingImage: Miho Ikeya/The Yomiuri Shimbun/AP/picture alliance

Nobel's legacy

The Nobel Prize for chemistry has been awarded 113 times since the prize's first year in 1901. It's gone to 187 scientists, but only seven women.

Alfred Nobel established the prize in his will before he died in 1896. He left the majority of his money to the establishment of "prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind" in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.

Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and military explosives, famously established the prize so he could leave a better legacy after being criticized for "finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before." That's what a journalist wrote in an obituary mistakenly published eight years before Nobel's actual death. The article was published after the death of Nobel's brother.

The very first Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded to Dutch scientist Jacobus Henricus van 't Hoff in 1901 for his discovery of the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions.

Edited by: Natalie Muller

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