Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Molecule building work wins Nobel

Nobel winners (AP) The method has allowed scientists to make drugs and improved electronics

Molecule building work wins Nobel

Three scientists have shared this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing new ways of linking carbon atoms together.

The Nobel was awarded to Professors Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki for innovative ways of developing complex molecules.

The chemical method developed by the researchers has allowed scientists to make medicines and better electronics.

The Nobels are valued at 10m Swedish kronor (£900,000; 1m euros; $1.5m).

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said this year's chemistry award honours the researchers' development of "palladium-catalysed cross couplings in organic systems".

The academy said it was a "precise and efficient" tool that is used by researchers worldwide, "as well as in the commercial production of for example pharmaceuticals and molecules used in the electronics industry".

Such chemicals included one found in small quantities in a sea sponge, which scientists aim to use to fight cancer cells. Researchers can now artificially produce this substance, called discodermolide.

Heck, 79, is a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, US; Negishi, 75, is a chemistry professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and 80-year-old Suzuki is a professor at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.

Professor Negishi told reporters in Stockholm by telephone that he was asleep when the call from the Nobel committee came.

'Essential tools'

"I went to bed last night well past midnight so I was sleeping but I am extremely happy to receive the telephone call," he said.

Organic chemistry has built on nature, utilising carbon's ability to provide a stable skeleton for functional molecules. This has paved the way for new medicines and improved materials.

To do this, chemists need to be able to join carbon atoms together, but carbon atoms do not easily react with one another.

The first methods used by chemists to bind carbon atoms together were based on making carbon more reactive.

This worked well for synthesising simple molecules, but when chemists tried to scale this up to more complex ones, too many unwanted by-products were generated.

The method based around the metal palladium solved that problem: in it, carbon atoms meet on a palladium atom, and their proximity to one another kick-starts the chemical reaction.

PM's call

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he spoke to Professor Suzuki on the phone and congratulated him.

"He told me that Japan's science and technology is at the world's top level and encouraged me to make good use of the resources," he said.

Professor David Phillips, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said these metal-based "coupling" reactions had led to "countless breakthroughs".

He added: "The Heck, Negishi and Suzuki reactions make possible the vital fluorescent marking that underpins DNA sequencing, and are essential tools for synthetic chemists creating complex new drugs and polymers."

Russian-born Andre Geim, 51, and Konstantin Novoselov, 36, of the University of Manchester, UK, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday for groundbreaking experiments with graphene, an ultra-thin and super-strong material.

The prizes also cover chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and economics.

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Materials breakthrough wins Nobel

05 OCTOBER 2010
Andre Geim (SPL) Andre Geim is based at the University of Manchester in the UK

Two scientists have shared this year's Nobel Prize for Physics for their "groundbreaking" work on a material with amazing properties.

Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, both at Manchester University, UK, took the prize for research on graphene.

Graphene is a flat sheet of carbon just one atom thick; it is almost completely transparent, but also extremely strong and a good conductor of electricity.

Its unique properties mean it could have a wide array of practical uses.

The researchers, along with several collaborators, were the first to isolate the layers of carbon from the material graphite, which is used in pencil "lead".

The breakthrough could lead to the manufacture of innovative electronics, including faster computers, according to the Nobel Prize Foundation.

"I'm fine, I slept well. I didn't expect the Nobel Prize this year," said Professor Geim.

He was talking over a telephone line to journalists assembled at a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

Prof Geim said his plans for the day would not change - he said he would go back to work and carry on with his research papers.

"In my opinion, there are several categories of Nobel prize winners. There are those who, after getting the Nobel Prize, stop doing anything for the rest of their lives, which is a big disservice for their community," he said.

"There is another type of person who thinks that other people think they won the Nobel Prize by accident. So they start working even harder than before."

He said that he was in neither of these categories and would "muddle on as before".

Between the sheets

Prof Geim, 51, is a Dutch national while Dr Novoselov, 36, holds British and Russian citizenship. Both are natives of Russia and started their careers in physics there.

The Nobels are valued at 10m Swedish kronor (£900,000; 1m euros; $1.5m).


  • Professor Andre Geim - born 1958 in Sochi, Russia
  • Dr Konstantin Novoselov - born 1974 in Nizhny Tagil, Russia
  • Geim and Novoselov share the prize this year for their work on the material graphene
  • Graphene is a flat sheet of carbon just one atom thick with a 2D honeycomb arrangement
  • They isolated graphene with the help of sticky tape to tear off flakes from pencil "lead"
  • The researchers published their findings in the journal Science in October 2004
  • Scientists predict a wide range of practical applications for the material
  • Graphene could one day replace silicon in transistors for electronics

They first worked together in the Netherlands before moving to the UK. They were based at the University of Manchester when they published their groundbreaking research paper on graphene in October 2004.

Dr Novoselov is among the youngest winners of a prize that normally goes to scientists with decades of experience.

Graphene is a form of carbon. It is a flat layer of carbon atoms tightly packed into a two-dimensional honeycomb arrangement.

Because it is so thin, it is also practically transparent. As a conductor of electricity it performs as well as copper, and as a conductor of heat it outperforms all other known materials.

The unusual electronic, mechanical and chemical properties of graphene at the molecular scale promise ultra-fast transistors for electronics.

Some scientists have predicted that graphene could one day replace silicon - which is the current material of choice for transistors.

It could also yield incredibly strong, flexible and stable materials and find applications in transparent touch screens or solar cells.

Geim and Novoselov first isolated fine sheets of graphene from the graphite which is widely used in pencils.

A layer of graphite 1mm thick actually consists of three million layers of graphene stacked on top of one another.

Levitating frogs

The layers are weakly held together and are therefore fairly simple to tear off and separate.

Start Quote

There are surely important lessons to be drawn by the government from the Nobel Committee's decision”

End Quote Professor Sir Martin Rees President, Royal Society

The researchers used ordinary sticky tape to rip off thin flakes from a piece of graphite.

Then they attached the flakes to a silicon plate and used a microscope to identify the thin layers of graphene among larger fragments of graphite and carbon scraps.

Professor Martin Rees, president of the UK's Royal Society commented: "It would be hard to envisage better exemplars of the value of enabling outstanding individuals to pursue 'open-ended' research projects whose outcome is unpredictable.

In an apparent reference to the threatened cuts to UK science funding, he added: "There are surely important lessons to be drawn by the government from the Nobel Committee's decision.

"The UK must sustain our science at a competitive level in a world where talent is mobile and other countries are advancing fast."

On Monday, the Nobel Foundation announced that British scientist Robert Edwards, the man who devised the fertility treatment IVF, had been awarded this year's prize for medicine.

Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics, said, "We're delighted to see two UK-based physicists take the prize.

"Following yesterday's win for Prof Edwards, there could be no clearer sign of just how much the UK punches above its international weight in a very competitive scientific world."

Ten years ago, Prof Geim and Prof Sir Michael Berry from the University of Bristol were jointly awarded an Ig Nobel prize for their experiments using magnetic fields to levitate live frogs.

These tongue-in-cheek awards for "improbable research" have become almost as famous as the real Nobels.

The Nobel prizes also cover chemistry, medicine, literature, peace and economics (more properly called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize). Laureates also receive a medal and a diploma.


Nobel Prize for chemistry of life

07 OCTOBER 2009

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath
The prize will be shared equally between the three winners

The 2009 chemistry Nobel Prize has been awarded to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath.

The prize is awarded for the study of the structure and function of the ribosome - the cell's protein factory.

The ribosome translates genetic code into proteins - which are the building blocks of all living organisms.

It is also the main target of new antibiotics, which combat bacterial strains that have developed resistance to traditional antibiotic drugs.

These new drugs work by blocking the function of ribosomes in bacterial cells, preventing them from making the proteins they need to survive.

It's above and beyond my dreams and I am very thankful
Ada Yonath

Their design has been made possible by research into the structure of the ribosome, because it has revealed key differences between bacterial and human ribosomes. Structures that are unique to bacteria can be targeted by drugs.

The announcement was made during a press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, during which the three winners were described as "warriors in the struggle of the rising tide of incurable bacterial infections".

Professor Ramakrishnan is based at the Medical Research Council's Molecular Biology Laboratories in Cambridge, UK.

Thomas Steitz is based at Yale University in the US, and Ada Yonath is from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.

The prize is to be shared equally between the three scientists, who all contributed to revealing the ribosome's huge and complex molecular structure in detail.

Professor David Garner, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, described the three as "great scientists" and said their work was of "enormous significance".

'Molecular machine'

These scientists and their colleagues have helped build a 3D structure of the ribosome.

In doing so, they solved an important part of the the problem posed by Francis Crick and James Watson when they discovered the twisted double helix DNA structure - how does this code become a living thing?

Bacterial ribosome (SPL)
Ultimately, when you look at any biological question it becomes a chemical problem
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan

DNA is made available to the ribosome by "transcription" of genes into chunks of messenger RNA.

In the ribosome, these are read and translated into the various amino acid sequences that make up an organism's proteins.

By looking closely at its structure, scientists are able to study how this translation process works.

The work is based on a technique called x-ray crystallography - where molecules are removed from cells, purified and made into crystals that can be examined using x-rays.

Professor Ramakrishnan told BBC News that until the ribosome's atomic structure was determined, "we knew this was a large molecular machine that translated genetic code to make proteins, but we didn't know how it worked".

"We still don't know exactly how it works, but we have made a tremendous amount of progress as a direct result of knowing what it looks like.

"It's the difference between knowing that when you put gasoline in a car and press on a pedal, it goes. But if you know that the gasoline gets ignited and pushes down pistons and drives the wheels, that's a new level of understanding."

Work together

Addressing the Nobel press conference by telephone, Professor Yonath said that modern techniques were allowing scientists to look at the structures on the atomic scale - individual bond after individual bond.

New drugs targeting the ribosome will help fight resistant bacteria

This is the 101st chemistry Nobel to be awarded since 1901, and Professor Yonath is only the fourth woman to win. She joins an illustrious list of female chemists that includes Marie Curie, who also won the physics award.

During the press conference, Professor Yonath said: "It's above and beyond my dreams and I am very thankful."

President of the American Chemical Society Thomas Lane told the BBC that the award was "a wonderful example of leaders in their disciplines - people from around the world - working towards a common goal and being able to achieve it.

"It shows that as scientists we don't just sit in our dark labs, we come together and share our research."

Professor Ramakrishnan paid tribute to the many generations of talented researchers who he said had contributed to this entire field.

Some scientists have commented negatively that the research recognised by this year's chemistry Nobel has a biological focus.

But Professor Garner pointed out that "when you get down to looking at biology at the molecular level - understanding the fundamental processes of life - it's all chemistry".

Professor Ramakrishnan said: "Ultimately, when you look at any biological question it becomes a chemical problem, because bio is done by molecules and molecules use chemical laws."

He concluded: "It's often the way with science that people study fundamental problems, like the ribosome, and they lead to important medical applications in completely unpredictable ways.

"It's important to realise that support for basic science is the seed that allows the medical applications and technology to grow."


'Glowing' jellyfish grabs Nobel

08 OCTOBER 2008

Brainbow (Livet et al)
Brainbow: A fantastic array of colours is now possible

A clever trick borrowed from jellyfish has earned two American researchers and one Japanese-born scientist a share of the chemistry Nobel Prize.

Martin Chalfie, Roger Tsien and Osamu Shimomura made it possible to exploit the genetic mechanism responsible for luminosity in the marine creatures.

Today, countless scientists use this knowledge to tag biological systems.

Glowing markers will show, for example, how brain cells develop or how cancer cells spread through tissue.

But their uses really have become legion: they are now even incorporated into bacteria to act as environmental biosensors in the presence of toxic materials.

Colour palette

Jellyfish will glow under blue and ultraviolet light because of a protein in their tissues. Scientists refer to it as green fluorescent protein, or GFP.

Shimomura made the first critical step, isolating GFP from a jellyfish (Aequorea victoria) found off the west coast of North America in 1962. He made the connection also with ultraviolet light.

Meanwhile in the 1990s, Chalfie demonstrated GFP's value "as a luminous genetic tag", as the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences described it in the Nobel citation.

GFP mosquitoes (SPL)
Scientists use GFP to study mosquitoes and malaria

Tsien's contribution was to further "our general understanding of how GFP fluoresces". In essence, he started to tune it, to broaden the palette to colours other than green. This was significant because it has allowed scientists to follow a number of different biological processes at once.

GFP has now become a standard laboratory tool. As well as assisting fundamental research in simply revealing how biological systems work, it has become invaluable in the domain of genetic engineering.

Scientists trying to modify a plant or animal will often include the gene responsible for GFP as part of the change. Fluorescence will then tell them if the modification has been taken up successfully or not, dramatically improving the efficiency of the research.

Shared glory

It is this science which has led to the stream of popular media stories down the years of "glowing" rabbits, butterflies, pigs - and all the other green-tinged animals to emerge from laboratories.

Just how far colouring techniques have come was demonstrated eloquently last year by a team led from Harvard University.

GFP mouse (SPL)
The GFP technique has provided fodder for the news media

The group used a combination of multiple fluorescent proteins to colour brain cells (neurons) in up to 90 distinct colours. They published a stunning image in the journal Nature which they called a "brainbow".

Osamu Shimomura is affiliated to the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, US. Martin Chalfie is at Columbia University, New York; and Roger Tsien's home institution is the University of California, San Diego. They share the prize equally.

The Nobel Prizes - which also cover physics, medicine, literature, peace and economics (more properly called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize) - are valued at 10m Swedish Kronor (£800,000; $1.4m).

Laureates also receive a medal and a diploma.

Source : BBC

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