Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cutting-Edge, Nobel-Worthy Chemistry

After all the early fuss about the merits of the 2012 Chemistry Nobel Prize, I noticed this challenge, couched in an earlier Chemjobber comment thread:
"The organic chemists seem to get their hides chapped most easily when a Nobel gets awarded to a 'biologist'. It's worth asking 'what are the fundamental unanswered questions in organic chemistry?'" (Emphasis mine)
Here are three areas, broadly defined, that I believe could win the Chemistry prize next year.

Synthetic trachea
University College London, 2011
1. Whither Polymers?  Darlings of early 20th-century industry, yet they've taken a back burner lately, winning their most recent Nobel in 2000. But, what a decade! Self-healing polymers. Fluoroelastomers you can print into any shape. Synthetic organs, even, grown from biodegradable polymer scaffolds. Trouble with this prize? Picking only three winners...

2. Biochemical Assembly Lines. Yes, cue the "it's not chemistry!" complaints, but I really like work which elucidates the cellular mechanisms plants, animals, and microbes use to assemble huge, medicinally-relevant natural products. Researchers can prompt E. coli to make an antifungal compound, for instance, or yeast to make a cancer therapy. Directed evolution of these assembly proteins, or the DNA which encodes them, can lead to products with wild substitutions and unexpected properties.  Bonus: All the 'big wheels' tend to be card-carrying chemists, and work in chemistry departments. The overarching goal tends to be chemical - utilization of Nature's machinery to produce new compounds.

Usual suspects: Christopher Walsh, Chaitan Khosla, David Liu, Ben Shen.

Walsh Group, JACS 2012

3. Fundamental Catalysis. Technically, there have been a few Nobels for this fairly recently (2001, 2005, 2011). But, what a decade! Here's some currently-exploding fields:

Chiral Anion Catalysis
Gold Catalysis
New carbene ligands
Frustrated Lewis pairs
Catalytic C-H activation

Any discipline on this short list could take home a Nobel within 10 years. Admittedly, some of these are rather young, but, as Ash has pointed out, the committee has rewarded ever-shorter publication-to-prize gaps, so it's not without precedent.

Usual Suspects: Dean Toste, Melanie Sanford, Anthony Arduengo, Graham Hutchings, Douglas Stephan, David MacMillan, Benjamin List

Readers, who would you award a Chemistry Nobel?


  1. OK. Here's what I like from your list:
    Artificial tissues & Synthetic organs.
    Frustrated Lewis pairs
    But, I still think that we have a nano award coming at us. Alivasatos/Whitesides/Lieber
    I could be wrong (and probably am).

    1. Interesting picks. I'll confess I left nano out in the cold...know why? It's covered - the Kavli prize has a category just for nanoscience!

  2. Mmm...braised synthetic trachea (not human of course).

    C-H activation: I think we are still waiting for the *real* breakthrough.
    Polymers: Definitely, and I have to say I have been blown away by E W Meijer's work.

    Would love to see a Nobel for DNA-templated synthesis, although it would need to be more widespread.

    1. It *does* sort of look like a thanksgiving trachea, yeah.

      OK, what will the "breakthrough" for C-H be? Mini-P450s? Other metals? Improved site selectivity?

    2. In my opinion the breakthrough for C-H activation would be to be able to transform simple alkane C-H bonds into alkenes, alcohols, or amines catalytically with benign oxidants and a catalyst that is highly active, and stable for at least days.

      I think Bob Bergman should get the C-H activation Nobel if it happens. None of the late metal C-H activation would have happened if he hadn't done his work. Also Shilov (and Shul'pin?) for discovering Pt C-H activation of methane to form methanol.

      Melanie Sanford has definitely done amazing work (and she is a really great speaker and a nice person), but there were many before her who inspired her (besides Bob and Shilov/Shul'pin), and other contemporaries who have been in the field longer (Roy Periana, Karen Goldberg, Andrei Vedernikov, Joe Templeton, Alan Goldman + Maurice Brookhart for alkane metathesis, T. Brendt Gunnoe, Fagnou (decesed from H1N1 :( ), others... those are just off the top of my head... I was in the field in grad school). Any I'm not including directed C-H activation... which is a GINORMOUS field (Jin-Quan Yu, Dougalis, etc etc etc).

    3. When I say "breakthrough" I am also thinking of practical applications. The thing is, every single organic methodology (metathesis, asymmetric epoxidations and hydrogenations, palladium catalysis, hydroboration) that has been recognized by the Nobel has also had an enormous impact on practical synthesis. The question in my mind is, how long would we have to wait before a C-H activation methodology is developed that's widely adopted by academia and industry?

  3. Also (i'm the same anonymous that posted at 12:18 replying to wavefunction's post), I think Catalysis for Artificial Phoynthesis (Water oxidation, CO2 reduction, light harvester) should get one if a device can be made that will be competitive with fossil fuels.

    1. Oh, completely with you there (Get on it, materials / inorganic people!)

  4. I think I'd add Robert Williams (Colorado) to number 2 (probably unrealistically but I like his work).

    Also, Evans to number 3 for Organocatalysis, not sure who I'd drop though....

    For a complete outsider, how about native chemical ligation? Probably too soon but Danishevsky is doing some pretty cool stuff (see Angewandte ASAPs on erythropoietin a few weeks ago).

  5. thanks for sharing..

  6. "Some of these are rather young"? I believe that the terms that established the Nobel prizes state that the award is to go to the most important scientific development in the PREVIOUS YEAR!


      You are correct, sir. "...during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind"