Nobelpreisträgertreffen

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Image source: Nobel Foundation

Every year as Nobel Prize winning season approaches, one sees a flurry of predictions about prizewinners materializing on blogs. I have played the prediction game myself for a couple of years. When I was in graduate school one of my professors offered to give extra points to anyone in the class who could predict that year’s winner. I had a gut feeling that the structure of the ribosome might get it (I think they still might get it). The prize did indeed go to the determination of a biological structure, but it went to Peter Agre and Roderick McKinnon for their work on water and potassium channels respectively.

But this exercise in prognostication underscored a curious phenomenon; the earlier enthusiasm displayed by bloggers for their favorite candidates was followed by the groans emanating from them after the prize was announced. And these groans were not purely a result of someone’s favorite candidate not winning. They were more emblematic of some people’s dislike of certain fields and especially the assertion that the prize-winning field was not chemistry.

In no other year was this remarkable phenomenon more apparent than in 2006. That year many bloggers listed dozens of candidates as potential winners on their blogs. Yet not a single person could predict that year’s winner; laureate Arthur Kornberg’s son Roger Kornberg who won the prize for his detailed structural studies of transcription, the copying of the genetic message inscribed in DNA into messenger RNA. Considering the number of proteins and other molecules participating in transcription along with the inherent complexity of the process, this was a stupendous achievement. But after Kornberg won, some bloggers were upset that the prize had gone to someone who was not really a chemist but more of a biologist. In their opinion RNA transcription was not really a core chemical process. Others insisted that if this trend continues there should really be a separate Nobel Prize for biology.

But in a rather bizarre way, all these complaints simply and rather singularly highlighted the central and somewhat paradoxical nature of chemistry as a “separate” field. Nobody explained this better than Roger Kornberg himself. In his Nobel interview that year, he constantly stressed how his work involved knowing the precise arrangement of atoms in a very complex assembly of molecules, an extension of work done by organic chemists since time immemorial. After all, for decades nobody has denied that the determination of organic structures using x-ray diffraction and crystallography is essentially chemistry, so why single out the determination of the structure of a complex biomolecular assembly as not being “chemical enough”? Kornberg’s point was quite cogent; chemistry through the ages might have evolved and undergone ramifications into other disciplines, but structure determination, no matter how complex the molecules involved may be, is inherently a chemical process. You may be looking at the nucleosome or the spliceosome, but the process still involves looking at amide bonds, phenyl rings and disulfide linkages. In case of structures such as the transcription complex, you further have to look at structural details which aid in chemical processes such as phosphorylation and nucleoside addition. Work like Kornberg’s allows us to get frozen snapshots of a complex, multifactorial process. In some ways it’s like determining the structure of an enzyme with its substrate bound to it, an endeavor that nobody questions as being essentially chemical.

Kornberg went further in his espousal of chemistry and noted that the most important thing he looks for in applicants to his group is knowledge of chemistry. He then said something remarkable; he said that in his opinion if an intelligent layman could educate himself in only one field, it should be in chemistry.

Kornberg’s last statement about chemistry may be open to debate but his point really is that chemistry has transformed itself in astonishing ways since Lavoisier and others founded the science more than three hundred years back. The founders of chemistry could not have even dreamt of the myriad ways in which chemistry would interface with and “intrude” into other fields. Ironically the answer to bloggers’ objections to Kornberg’s Nobel as not really being a chemistry Nobel would be found in their own lists of potential prizewinners drawn up that year; the topics range from green fluorescent protein (which did indeed win two years later) to surface chemistry (which again did win) to computational biochemistry to global warming to palladium catalysis to single-molecule spectroscopy. Sure, some of these fields sound more traditionally ‘chemical’ than others but others are strictly interdisciplinary.

The resentment voiced by the critics has now turned into appreciation for the astonishingly diverse nature of chemistry. In fact the very fact that some stubbornly refused to recognize the 2006 Nobel as a chemistry Nobel attests to this diversity. Proof that chemistry is all encompassing should scarcely be more wanting. The topics of the Lindau meetings clearly exemplify this; from caged compounds to climate change, from organic catalysis to the flow of water through proteins, from reactions at surfaces to reactions in the global water cycle, they demonstrate that chemistry encircles our imagination, and that it encircles the world.

 » Ashutosh Jogalekar studied chemistry and is currently a postdoctoral fellow. i-c0e68e378b7f2835c50e2ebef6c3288f-Ashutosh_45.jpg