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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 3, 2011

Chemistry Nobel Time

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Posted by Derek

The first week in October is on us again, and this Wednesday is the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. So what can we say about who should get it (and about who actually will?)

Your first place to turn should be Paul Bracher's ChemBark post on the topic. He has a comprehensive list of candidates, but the only ones with better odds than the field bet are:

Spectroscopy & Application of Lasers (Zare/Moerner/+), 6-1
Nuclear Hormone Signaling (Chambon/Evans/Jensen), 7-1
Bioinorganic Chemistry (Gray/Lippard/Holm/–), 8-1
Techniques in DNA Synthesis, (Caruthers/Hood/+), 10-1

That's a very reasonable list, and I think that Zare/Moerner (and possibly et al.) are definitely going to win at some point. There's a strong case to be made for each of the others, too. Meanwhile, Thomson/Reuters has narrowed things down quite a bit. Their three contenders are:

Electrochemistry (Bard et al.)
Molecular Dynamics (Karplus et al.)
Dendritic Polymers (Fréchet, Tomalia, Vögtle)

Those first two have been contenders for many years (which tends to move them down on the ChemBark list, and up on the Thomson one), but no one could complain about either of them. I really, really doubt that dendritic chemistry's going to win this year, though, and I'd like to know what put that topic so far up the list. Maybe some day, but not yet, in my opinion. My guess is that the sheer number of publications in the field has skewed things a bit (after all, keeping track of such things is Thomson/Reuters' business). Wavefunction's list is a good one to check out, and seems much more in tune with reality.

There are some categories of research that I would like to see win at some point, although narrowing down the names won't be easy. I think that directed-evolution methods are a great area with a lot of potential, for one, and the whole activity-based protein profiling/in vivo cell labeling stuff is another. Eventually I expect some nanotech/molecular machine discovery to win, but only once it gets far enough along to connect with the real world. And the work on photochemical energy technology (carbon dioxide fixation, hydrogen generation, and so on) will also be a strong candidate when something looks world-changing enough. Other discoveries in the surely-Nobel-worthy category are GPCR structure (and that sort of thing has usually been moved over into the Chemistry prize) and DNA-based diagnostic methods (hard to narrow that one down, though).

This year? I think the committee will go back and pick up one of those prizes for long-time contenders; I don't expect any massive surprises. And I certainly don't expect anything in organic chemistry this time. But we'll see on Wednesday. What's that? You want me to really pick something? Fine. . .I'll guess the nuclear receptor people, or the single-molecule spectroscopy people, in basically a dead heat. I think that the ChemBark odds are correct.

Comments (32) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. Anonymous on October 3, 2011 12:12 PM writes...

K. C. Nicolaou is recommendated for Nobel Prize this year.

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2. HelicalZz on October 3, 2011 12:25 PM writes...

Probably worth a separate blog post, but one can't simply ig-nore the ig-Nobles

CHEMISTRY PRIZE: Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of JAPAN, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.

REFERENCE: US patent application 2010/0308995 A1. Filing date: Feb 5, 2009.


Full list

Zz - Love to see Caruthers/Hood

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3. Anomymous on October 3, 2011 1:11 PM writes...

@ Anonymous #1


Nicolaou will never get a Nobel Prize and the reason for this is very simple: he doesn't deserve it.

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4. Student on October 3, 2011 1:44 PM writes...

I predict George Whitesides.

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5. PharmaHeretic on October 3, 2011 2:25 PM writes...

On a more cynical note, maybe pharma "managers" could learn a new trick from this guy.

A Bettendorf businessman, branded as the “boss from hell” by some of his employees, offered prizes to workers who could predict which of them would next be fired. A state judge has called that a “deplorable” act and sided with the company’s ex-employees.

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6. Boghog on October 3, 2011 2:51 PM writes...

@ Derek:
> I'll guess the nuclear receptor people

which is an interesting juxtaposition with your previous post:


> My own candidate is the nuclear receptor field

But then again, good science and profitable drug discovery don't always mix. Is it possible that nuclear receptors are both behind (50's steroid research) and ahead of its time (we will figure it out one of these days)?

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7. Hap on October 3, 2011 4:14 PM writes...

Will KCN get the Chemistry Nobel before or after W gets the Peace Prize? I would say before, but I'm not sure (though since Obama got it for not being W, W's prize would be pretty improbable).

I think KCN's done neat synthesis, but I don't really think anything he's done is really fundamentally new. There's a lot of similar people who have done more useful methodology and who also have made lots of natural products (though KCN's work is broader in structural type than most of the others), so even if a general "applications to synthesis" prize is given out, he might get denied anyway (though I would think not).

I would pick organocatalysis to get a prize before the "Best of Synthesis" crew, and I wouldn't delay the house payment until one of them gets it.

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8. NP on October 3, 2011 4:36 PM writes...

Nobel Prize ... If organic synthesis should be rewarded again this year, I hope that the total synthesis will win, and obviously one of its best representatives = Stuart Schreiber.
Although today, like many, I am annoyed by the approach of KCN, we must recognize that some of his work was of important scientific advances (eg the use of reagents such as N-PSP, IBX and the achievement of beautiful total synthesis!). And if in return for Nobel Prize, he agrees to drop and to lose its colored pencils!

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9. imatter on October 3, 2011 6:51 PM writes...

I'm going with GPCR structures: Palczewski/Kobilka.

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10. My-2-cents on October 3, 2011 7:52 PM writes...

My money is on DNA fingerprinting/diagnostics. Just for the impact it has on society as a whole. Not least of it - for innocent people wrongfully convicted who are set free by DNA technology.

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11. leftscienceawhileago on October 3, 2011 8:15 PM writes...

Wouldn't you have to put Stevens in there too?

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12. cliffintokyo on October 3, 2011 8:35 PM writes...

My choice for a big prize (not nec. Nobel) for some REAL Chem is Kishi & team for Eribulin.
Eribulin was approved by FDA and EMA this year, which is just about as far as Research has a direct stake in a good result.
Whether or not Eribulin is marketed successfully, solely for the Med/Synth Chem it must surely be a strong candidate.

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13. Anonymous Academic on October 3, 2011 8:40 PM writes...

As a crystallographer, I really hope the Nobel committee doesn't award any more prizes for crystallography for a very long time. I'm sure the people responsible for GPCR structures (none of whom I've ever met) are all much smarter and more dedicated than me, but it's still essentially a brute-force problem, and not really a revolutionary discovery. (And yes, I thought the 2009 chemistry prizes were excessive too.) Why not reserve the really special awards for science that goes outside the box or discovers something fundamentally new and unknown? GPCR crystallography is all about illustrating mechanistic details, and it was an obvious problem to work on - the only reason more people didn't work on it was that it's notoriously difficult. Kobilka's GPCR/G-protein complex is a technical masterpiece, and I don't begrudge him the cover of Nature, but it's still an incremental advance as far as I'm concerned.

The real danger, in my opinion, is that people will come to see "extreme crystallography" as a guaranteed way to win a Nobel. And frankly, some of the egos in this field (like the rest of biomedicine and chemistry, I'm sure) don't need any more inflating. (Excluding Kobilka, who apparently has an unusually small ego for a tenured professor.)

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14. Lu on October 3, 2011 9:43 PM writes...

Well, electrochemistry is sexy now...
I vote for Bard

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15. smurf on October 3, 2011 11:59 PM writes...

@ An. Alc. (post 13): Thanks, could not agree more!

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16. stu on October 4, 2011 1:10 AM writes...

Phil Baran.

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17. anon on October 4, 2011 5:41 AM writes...

Fred McLafferty's work in fragmentation analysis and the identification of compounds using GC/MS made a huge impact on research and the daily lives of people around the world. His methods and the way of thinking have saved and improved countless lives from healthcare research to forensics. I hope this year he finally gets it.

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18. FormerlyMerck on October 4, 2011 7:46 AM writes...

@12 cliffintoky: Although I totally agree with you, I do think that this is unfortunately pretty unlikely

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19. Dr. Manhattan on October 4, 2011 10:01 AM writes...

Slightly off topic, but it was a heart breaker to learn that Ralph Steinman did not hear that he had won. Ralph was a true gentleman, and an incredibly hard talented and working individual. He spent some years in the wilderness before dendritic cells were accepted and recongnized. Watched him develop his worker for several years while at the Rock.

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20. Anonymous on October 4, 2011 10:21 AM writes...

@16...for what?

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21. Rock on October 4, 2011 10:24 AM writes...

Probably not this year, but I would think that Sharpless could get it in the next few years for "click chemistry". When has such a relatively simple concept impacted so many different areas of research? A search on "click chemistry" finds about 5000 references. And the number is growing exponentially. 250 in 2007; 1100 in 2010.

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22. InfMP on October 4, 2011 10:57 AM writes...

I wish he had just called it the Huisgen 1,3-dipolar cycloaddition.

Calling it click has to have been one of the stupidest catch phrases ever in Chemistry.

Phil Baran is MC Hammer.

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23. imatter on October 4, 2011 11:18 AM writes...

McLafferty is a good one.

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24. Hap on October 4, 2011 11:24 AM writes...

Baran has more hits than MC Hammer did ("Can't Touch This" vs. haouamine A/palau'amine, for starters).

A Nobel for KCN would be better than for Baran (if it's for total syn, he's done a lot more, though Baran's syntheses are really cool). It probably doesn't matter, anyway.

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25. anon the II on October 4, 2011 11:51 AM writes...

McLafferty is an interesting suggestion. He is probably the one most responsible for showing that mass spectrometry might just be useful in the routine analysis of organic molecules. That's been kind of important over the years. He's a bit of a curmudgeon and maybe that's why he was late into the NAS and wasn't included in 2002 when Fenn and Tanaka got it for soft ionization methods. The interesting thing is that soft ionization methods have caused a lot of McLafferty's work to be less relevant. Few young chemists are good at pushing around electrons one at a time to explain the various decompositions of a radical cation. And you don't see the "Yellow Book" on chemists' desks much anymore. But that hardly detracts from his original contributions.

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26. newnickname on October 4, 2011 2:15 PM writes...

Does anybody remember that George Newkome published arborols (JOC, 1985) at around the same time as Tomalia published dendrimers (Polymer J, 1985)? And they both chose similar descriptive nomenclature, inspired by tree-like growth arms.

Yes, I know: Vogtle, ~1978; Denkewalter, ~1981. But they didn't choose snazzy names.

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27. Hank on October 4, 2011 2:41 PM writes...

They should give the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Barack Obama....since the Nobel committee appears to be in love with him and they already gave him the Peace Prize for absolutely no reason. Might as well give him another Nobel Prize for no reason.

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28. Anonymous on October 4, 2011 4:53 PM writes...

Wow...I didn't know the GOP read this website

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29. anon on October 4, 2011 4:58 PM writes...

Interestingly, McLafferty's approach is being adapted to lc-msms. The more things change...

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30. pxr45 on October 5, 2011 6:25 AM writes...

@ 13
Oh dear
Jinxed it I'm afraid :)

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31. pxr45 on October 5, 2011 6:29 AM writes...

on the other hand I expect Roger Penrose will be pleased with this

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32. A-Non on October 5, 2011 7:43 AM writes...

"Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry 'for the discovery of quasicrystals,' the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Wednesday."

Before all you haters claim this ain't chemistry, where would we be without Pople Notation?

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