Every year, Nobel Week becomes an international event, when the world learns about the laureates of the prestigious Nobel Prize. The prizes are awarded in several fields. Since 1901, men and women have been honoured for exceptional accomplishments in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and activity for peace. For chemists, chemical industry workers, or simply enthusiasts of chemistry in general, the most awaited news is on Nobel Prize laureates in chemistry. Since 1901, the prize in chemistry has been awarded a total of 113 times. As many as 187 people have received this honour. The discoveries made are of considerable importance. They shed new light on many aspects of science and affect the everyday life of all of us. To this day, as is the tradition, the prizes are presented on the anniversary of the founder’s death on 10 December. The results themselves are announced two months earlier. Who is going to be the laureate in 2022? This we will find out in a few months. In the meantime, let us take a closer look at the history of this unique prize.
It all started with him – Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel was the originator of the idea of awarding prizes for exceptional achievements. He was an inventor, entrepreneur, scientist and businessman. He also wrote poems and plays. It is impossible to describe the extremely rich and colourful life of this Swedish engineer in just a few sentences.
In 1862, the future founder of the Nobel Prize opened a factory producing the explosive and highly unstable nitroglycerine. One of the uncontrolled explosions in the factory resulted in the death of his brother. After constructing a detonator, he became famous as an inventor, and at the same time he expanded his fortune as a manufacturer of explosives. He is the most famous for inventing dynamite in 1867. His many inventions include primer, blasting gelatin, as well as ballistite. In total, we owe more than 350 patents in different countries to Nobel.
His varied interests reflected and became the basis for the prize he went on to establish, the foundations for which he laid in 1895. It was then that he drew up his last will, where he left a major portion of his vast estate to set up the prize. The prize named after him is awarded for exceptional accomplishments, as he himself made considerable contributions to the progress of humanity.
We can only speculate why he decided to dedicate his fortune to discovery and the world of science. As a person, Alfred Nobel was a man of few words. It is likely he never confided in anyone why he took his decision in the months before his death. It is assumed today that it was influenced by a certain incident of 1888, which may have prompted a series of reflections and culminated in founding the Nobel Prize. In 1888, Alfred’s brother, Ludvig, died in Cannes, France. Newspapers reported Ludvig’s death but confused him with Alfred, printing a headline ‘The merchant of death is dead’.
Who was the first Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry?
The laureates received their Nobel Prizes for the first time in 1901, four years after Alfred Nobel’s death. The Nobel in Chemistry went to Jacobus van ’t Hoff. He was the founder of modern physical chemistry. The Nobel Committee justified van ‘t Hoff’s selection as follows: ‘in recognition of the extraordinary contribution made to discovering the laws of chemical dynamics and osmotic pressure in solutions’. This Dutch chemist had a considerable impact on the development of chemistry, and the theories he proposed continue to be used to this day.
In 1874, he explained the phenomenon of optical activity by assuming that chemical bonds between carbon and adjacent atoms point toward the corners of a regular tetrahedron. Interestingly, he did not receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this groundbreaking proposition. Aged 22, he published his revolutionary ideas, which led chemists to perceive molecules as objects with a specific structure and three-dimensional shapes.
He also introduced the modern concept of chemical affinity. He demonstrated the similarity between the behaviour of dilute solutions and gases. Jacobus van ‘t Hoff also worked on the theory of electrolyte dissociation, which Svante Arrhenius introduced in 1889. Through his studies, van ‘t Hoff provided a physical substantiation for the Arrhenius equation.
Among the laureates of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is Marie Skłodowska-Curie. She became a laureate of this prestigious prize twice. The second time she received it together with her husband, in the field of physics for research on radioactivity. Her extraordinary scientific accomplishments and the respect she won at a time when most universities did not even admit women, and she herself had to fight for her rightful place in the world of science, inspire great admiration.
In 1911, Marie Skłodowska-Curie received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, this time individually. The Nobel Committee decided to honour her for the discovery of two radioactive elements – radium and polonium. After this discovery, Marie continued the research on their properties. In 1910, she managed to produce pure radium. In this way, she proved beyond any doubt that the new element did exist. In the course of her further research, she also documented the properties which characterised radioactive elements and their compounds. Thanks to the work of this Polish laureate of the Nobel Prize, radioactive compounds became an important source of radiation both in scientific experiments and in medicine, where they are used to treat cancer.
Throughout her life, Marie maintained her ties with Poland. Polish scholarship winners would work in the Radium Institute, founded on her initiative in Paris. She herself would give lectures in Poland and publish numerous papers presenting the effects of her experiments in Polish scientific journals. Marie Skłodowska-Curie is the first woman from Poland and indeed the entire world to win this prestigious prize, and hopefully not the last.
Highlights in discoveries awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in recent years
When selecting the Nobel Prize laureates, the Nobel Committee follows the criterion of recognising above all discoveries that are groundbreaking for humanity, that expand the level of current knowledge in a given field. The prize is less often awarded for specific inventions. One should remember, however, that revolutionary theories are frequently followed by many patents that change our everyday life.
In 2015, the Nobel Prize laureates in chemistry were Tomas Lindahl, Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar. They received this distinction for mechanistic studies on DNA repair. The research they conducted explained on a molecular level how cells are able to repair damaged DNA and therefore how they are able to protect genetic information. Laureates of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry thus contributed to exploring the mechanisms of cancer development. This indicates that tumours are the effect of disorders in repair processes. Such damage occurs in our bodies all the time. Most often, it is caused by agents such as free radicals or radiation. The research conducted by these three scientists provided a foundation for understanding the mechanism of evolution of the animate world. Their achievements are applied in developing modern cancer treatments.
Roger D. Kornberg from the United States received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2006 for research on the molecular mechanism of transcription in eukaryotic cells. His scientific work covers the issues of copying genetic material, which is stored in cellular DNA. In order for genetic material to work, it is necessary to ‘copy’, or transcribe it from DNA to RNA, and subsequently to proteins. The Nobel Prize laureate demonstrated that it is a fundamental process for the life of all cells. Furthermore, he developed a model that explained its functioning. This research too contributed to progress in medicine. It greatly facilitates work on treating many diseases and genetic disorders. Such disorders not only create a dangerous potential for the development of cancers but also heart diseases and various inflammatory conditions.
In 2011, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded for a discovery in the world of science that was exceptionally unique. The Israel-born Daniel Shechtman discovered so-called quasicrystals, chemical structures that resemble a mosaic in their structure. This event was particularly groundbreaking because previously, the existence of these structures was deemed impossible. Quasicrystals have the special form of a solid, where atoms arrange themselves in a seemingly regular but non-repeating structure. Thus, it is impossible to identify their primitive cells. Shechtman discovered quasicrystals in 1982. The scientific world viewed this discovery with great scepticism at the time. For several months, Shechtman unsuccessfully tried to convince his colleagues that he was right. Ultimately, he was asked to leave the research team. It was only in 1987 that French and Japanese scientists confirmed Shechtman’s discovery from five years before.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2023
The year 2023 has brought us good news from the world of science! A team of three scientists – Moungi G. Bawendi from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Louis E. Brus from Columbia University and Alexei I. Ekimov from Nanocrystals Technology Inc., were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The prize was awarded for the “discovery and synthesis of quantum dots“. The scientists have contributed to the development of quantum mechanics by developing nanoparticles of extremely huge potential.
Quantum dots are nanoparticles with sizes of only a few to several dozen nanometers and unique physical and chemical properties. They belong to the group of semiconductor nanocrystals, and their size qualifies them for nanotechnology applications. Their main effect is based on the absorption and emission of radiation.
In 1981, quantum dots were first synthesized in a glass matrix by this year’s laureate – Alexei Ekimov. Two years later, the same structure was obtained in a colloidal suspension by another of the awarded scientists – Louis Brus. Currently, these nanoparticles can be obtained via many different chemical reactions. However, one of the currently most popular and commonly used synthesis pathways is a method patented by the research team led by Moungi G. Bawendi, which allows to obtain almost perfect molecules.
The unusual optical and electronic properties of these nanostructures (including a high attenuation coefficient and non-linear processes occurring inside them) provide a wide scope for their application in many fields of science and technology. The improved photostability of quantum dots enables their effective use in medical diagnostics. They have a longer and better effect compared to common contrast agents, dyes and other indicators. The above mentioned properties allow the use of these nanoparticles in complex anti-cancer treatments. Research is also ongoing on their antibacterial potential.
Quantum dots are also used to emit light from TV screens with high image accuracy, as well as from LED lamps. They are also used in PV devices and a lot of other equipment. According to scientists, quantum dots are the future of the evolving “flexible electronics”, small-sized sensors and quantum cryptography.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2022
In 2022, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award the Nobel Prize in chemistry to three people. This year’s winners of that prestigious award are Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless. They have been rewarded for “the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry”.
Karl Barry Sharpless and Morten Meldal particularly contributed to the development of the functional form of click chemistry. The Committee emphasized the uniqueness of that method, which makes it possible to carry out quick and simple reactions with no by-products. It should also be underlined that Karl Barry Sharpless received the Nobel Prize for the second time. He was first awarded in 2001 for his research used for synthesizing cardiac drugs, the so-called beta-blockers.
Carolyn Ruth Bertozzi is responsible for extending the dictionary of science by the term “bioorthogonal chemistry”. It was first used already in 2003, and since then the field has been effectively developed, improving our knowledge on the processes occurring in living cells.
The “click chemistry” is compared to building structures of LEGO blocks. By using specific fragments of molecules, we can join them to form compounds of high complexity and diversity. The combination of relatively simple “chemical blocks” enables a virtually indefinite diversity of molecules. The bioorthogonal chemistry allows for monitoring the chemical processes that occur in living cells without damaging them. This gives an opportunity to examine diseases existing inside cells or in complex organisms.
Does the research conducted by this year’s Nobel Prize winners affect our daily lives? Yes, a lot! The mechanisms they described can be applied especially in pharmacy and medicine, for example to make the production of drugs more effective. Today it is very often complicated and thus time-consuming and expensive. Click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry will streamline such processes as the channelling of antineoplastic drugs, but will also extend our knowledge and achievements in the fields of antibiotics, herbicides and diagnostic tests. Besides, they will drive progress in the synthesis of the so-called intelligent materials, as it will be easy to put individual elements together. Even now bioorthogonal chemistry is globally known and used to track different biological processes, particularly in the field of combating tumours. The combination of these new technologies allows us to learn more about cells and biological processes. The formation of complex molecules by linking individual elements will considerably reduce or completely eliminate the formation of by-products.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2021
In 2021, the Nobel Committee took a decision differing from the widespread speculation that the prize was to be awarded to the scientists responsible for the creation of the innovative RNA vaccines. This 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Benjamin List and David MacMillan. They received this distinction for developing asymmetric organic catalysis. Some openly call this tool for building chemical molecules a work of genius. Moreover, their method contributed to the further development of “Green Chemistry”, which strives for maintaining harmony with the natural environment.
Molecule building is not an easy craft. The 2021 laureates created a precise tool for molecular construction, or organocatalysis. Many research areas and industries depend on the chemists’ ability to build molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the growth of diseases. This work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions. At the same time, they are not part of the end product. Catalysts are therefore essential tools at the disposal of chemists. However, for a long time, scientists had believed that there are only two types of catalysts: metals and enzymes.
Benjamin List and David MacMillan received the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry because in 2020 they developed a third type of catalysis. It must be noted that both scientists conducted their research independently of each other. As a result of their scientific work, they created asymmetric organocatalysis. The idea is based on small organic molecules. One advantage of this method is certainly its great simplicity. Organic catalysts have a stable backbone made of carbon atoms. To this core chain, more active chemical groups can be attached. These groups often contain common elements, such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur or phosphorus. Ultimately, such catalysts are not only environmentally-friendly, but their production costs are not substantial.
The growth of interest in organic catalysts stems primarily from their ability to drive asymmetric catalysis. In the most general terms, when a molecule forms, often two different molecules can be created, which are mirror images of themselves. Particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, chemists want to produce only one of these forms because, in many cases, one such structure has a therapeutic effect, while the other is highly toxic. The development of asymmetric organic catalysis will greatly contribute to solving this problem.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020
In 2020, this prestigious prize was awarded to two women. The laureates in question are Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna. The ladies discovered one of the sharpest tools in genetic engineering: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Thanks to their innovative discovery, scientists now have a tool for modifying the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with exceptional precision. This technology has revolutionised natural sciences, contributed to the emergence of new anti-cancer therapies, and brought closer the dream of treating hereditary diseases. If scientists want to find out something about the internal workings of life, they must modify genes in cells. Previously, it has been an extremely labour and time-intensive task. Sometimes it was simply impossible to do. With CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, one can change the code of life within a few weeks.
An interesting fact is that the discovery of these genetic scissors was unexpected. When studying one of the bacteria that have caused the greatest damage to humanity – Streptococcus pyogenes, Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered a previously unknown molecule – tracrRNA, which is part of the CRISPR/Cas bacteria immune system, which destroys viruses by splitting their DNA. Charpentier published her discovery in 2011 and a few months later began her cooperation with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with a great wealth of knowledge about RNA. Working together, they created the bacterial genetic scissors and simplified the molecular components of the scissors, so they are as easy to use as possible. The laureates of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry proved that it is possible to control the genetic scissors so that they cut any chosen DNA molecule in a specific spot. They achieved this by reprogramming the original genetic scissors. Charpentier and Doudna demonstrated that it is easy to rewrite the code of life at the spot where DNA is cut. Since they achieved this, the use of CRISPR/Cas9 has exploded.
The tool they developed has contributed to a great many discoveries. Scientists who specialise in plants are able to create crops resistant to moulds, pests or droughts. In medicine, research is ongoing on novel cancer therapies. There is a significant chance that treating hereditary diseases will no longer be a problem. Without doubt, these genetic scissors have in many respects ushered in a new era in natural sciences. The discovery made by these laureates of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is going to bring great benefits to humanity.
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