Nobel Award for Chemistry

Palladium cross-couplings

October 6, 2010

- sorry for the late post today (of all days … sheesh), our internet has been horrendous all day long.

My Geek-Flag is flying at full staff this week. I am incredibly excited about the announcement of the Nobel Awards. Before I get to the award for chemisty, I just wanted to highlight some things about the medicine and physics winners.

The award for Medicine or Physiology went to Robert Edwards who developed in vitro fertilization. I don’t think that I need to describe what IVF is, so I want to just add a little anecdote. The first test-tube baby was Louise Brown was born in late July of 1978. Ms. Brown, who lives in England, gave birth to her son, Cameron, in 2007.

Yesterday’s physics award was given to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their work with graphene. Graphene is a sheet of carbon, one atom wide. The pair first produced graphene by putting a piece of tape on some pencil lead (graphite) and ripping off a layer of material. Pretty cool way to get a Nobel. (They obviously put in more work than that.) Andre Geim is most notable because he is the first person to be awarded the Nobel Prize as well as an Ig Nobel Prize. His Ig Nobel came for an experiment in which he levitated a frog using magnets.

This year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki. These names may not be familiar to many of our readers. However, if you’re a chemist, they are instantly recognizable. The Mizoroki-Heck Reaction. Suzuki Coupling. Negishi Coupling. Chemists have their own sort of toolbox that they use when trying to make a new molecule. And these scientists have created some of the most often used tools in our trade. It may sound like a “bland” topic. However, as a chemist, it is very satisfying to see the importance of this science recognized with a Nobel.


Look at that molecule shown in the above picture. It is complicated. It is beautiful. It is fascinating. Am I losing your interest? I shouldn’t be. Discodermolide is a molecule that was recently found to inhibit tumor growth. Trying to make enough discodermolide to provide to patients in need is a really daunting task. You can’t just stack carbon atoms and oxygen atoms and hydrogen atoms on top of one another until you make the molecule you want. The synthesis of discodermolide takes an incredible amount of chemical finesse. Palladium cross-coupling reactions (directly involved in the synthesis of discodermolide) give synthetic chemists one of the tools that they need in order to achieve that precision.

Or, think of it another way. Chemistry isn’t primarily concerned with an end point and a starting point (i.e. discodermolide and the molecular building blocks that are used to make it). Chemistry’s main focus is on the pathway that will lead you from the building blocks to discodermolide. Yes, we want to make this molecule. But, our focus is alway on “how” we make this molecule. Or, better yet, how do we make this molecule possible. This is kind of how my father-in-law approaches one aspect of his life. Whenever I drive somewhere with him, I have noticed that he never takes the same road twice. He’s always looking for a better/faster/cheaper way to get from point A to point B. Chemists are kind of the same way. There are some who are looking for new roads. Others try to figure out why one road works better than another. Still others will try to build new roads that are slight modifications of existing roads.

This road analogy is kind of a good way to view what these scientists were awarded for today. They discovered a new road. And, this new road has given us a way to take ordinary, everyday molecules and turn them into something beautiful/fascinating/therapeutic/novel like discodermolide. Unfortunately, using another road analogy, there were other scientists (likely just as worthy) who have discovered similar pathways and reactivities who were left out of this year’s award (Sonogashira, Buchwald, Hartwig, Stille, Hiyama, Fukuyama, etc). However, I still believe that the science needed to be recognized, and the Nobel Prize committee did a fine job of that.

To see more discussion of today’s Nobel Prize and what the chemistries are used for, check out one of our favorite sites: chembark.


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2 Responses to Nobel Award for Chemistry

  1. Ryan Davison says:

    Great post Matt. Joe Francisco, the President of the ACS said “It’s a wonderful selection. The winners are among the foremost scientists of our era. Their research has led to creation of new molecules and compounds that have improved the lives of millions of people. It gave us revolutionary new medicines, plastics and other products that improve the lives of people everywhere. Coming as it does on the eve of the International Year of Chemistry in 2011, this Nobel Prize showcases the global reach and universal impact of chemistry. As President of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest Scientific Society I am delighted to congratulate the new laureates on behalf of our more than 161,000 members. Both Drs. Negishi and Suzuki are among those members”

  2. shemelis says:

    how be perfect in chemistry

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