Danish and US chemists win Nobel prize for work on ‘click chemistry’

The Nobel Chemistry Prize was on Wednesday awarded to a trio of chemists from the US and Denmark who laid the foundation for a more functional form of chemistry.

Danish and US chemists win Nobel prize for work on 'click chemistry'
Barry Sharples, Carolyn Bertozzi, and Morten Meldal (left to right). Photo: Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Americans Carolyn Bertozzi and Barry Sharpless, together with Denmark’s Morten Meldal, have been honoured “for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.” 

“This year’s Prize in Chemistry deals with not overcomplicating matters, instead working with what is easy and simple. Functional molecules can be built even by taking a straightforward route,” Johan Åqvist, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said in a press release

Illustration: Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Prize Outreach

The award marks the second Nobel for 81-year-old Sharpless, who won the chemistry Nobel in 2001 and who in around 2000 coined the concept of “click chemistry”, a form of simple and reliable chemistry, where reactions occur quickly and unwanted by-products are avoided.

Only four other individuals have achieved the feat, including Polish-born Frenchwoman Marie Curie.

On the back of Sharpless’ original idea, Morten Meldal, a professor at Copenhagen University, and Sharpless then independently came up withcopper catalysed azide-alkyne cycloaddition“,  an elegant and efficient chemical reaction that has since become the foundation of much click chemistry, used in making pharmaceuticals and analysing DNA. 

Bertozzi then took click chemistry to a new dimension and started using it in living organisms.

“She developed click reactions that work inside living organisms. Her bioorthogonal reactions take place without disrupting the normal chemistry of the cell,” the jury said.

Meldal, who was born in Denmark in 1954, got his PhD from the Technical University of Denmark. 

The trio will share the Nobel award sum of 10 million Swedish kronor ($917,500), will receive the prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.
“I’m absolutely stunned, I’m sitting here and I can hardly breathe,” Bertozzi told reporters via telephone, minutes after the announcement.

Last year, the academy honoured Germany’s Benjamin List and US-British dual national David MacMillan for their development of a precise tool for molecular construction known as asymmetric organocatalysis.

On Monday, the medicine prize went to Swedish paleogeneticist Svante Paabo for his discoveries on the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.

Then on Tuesday, physicists Alain Aspect of France, John Clauser of the United States and Austria’s Anton Zeilinger were given the physics prize for developing experimental tools that helped prove quantum entanglement — a phenomenon Albert Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance”.

The chemistry prize will be followed by the highly watched literature and peace prizes, announced on Thursday and Friday respectively.

The peace prize is expected to hold a special significance this year given the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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Iranian ambassador refused invite to Stockholm Nobel Prize banquet

The organisers of the Nobel Prize ceremony on Friday declared Iran's ambassador was not welcome at the glittering event in December, just days after issuing a similar snub to Russia and Belarus.

Iranian ambassador refused invite to Stockholm Nobel Prize banquet

“Given the serious and escalating situation… Iran’s ambassador should not be invited to the Nobel Prize award ceremony”, the Nobel Foundation said in a statement, referring to Tehran’s brutal crackdown on widespread protests.

“For several decades, the Nobel Foundation’s starting point has been to invite all countries with diplomatic representation in Sweden (to)… celebrate the laureates’ contributions to science, literature and peace.”

However, earlier this week it announced that the envoys for Russia and Belarus would not be invited due to the war in Ukraine, nor would the leader of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party.

The foundation said it had “decided to follow the Swedish and European diplomatic policy of not inviting Russia and Belarus because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

“Although Sweden and other European countries do not yet have any corresponding diplomatic policy regarding Iran, the issue is still evolving and we believe that… Iran’s ambassador should not be invited”.

The glitzy bash is held each year in Stockholm on December 10 when laureates in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics receive their awards from King Carl XVI Gustaf, followed by a gala banquet for around 1,200 guests.

A separate ceremony is held in Oslo on the same day for the Peace Prize laureate.