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Awarding nontraditional chemistry

As has been reported at C&EN and elsewhere, the anxiously awaited 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded Wednesday to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for their work characterizing the structure and function of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs).

Here at CENtral Science, giddy Nobel fan boy David Kroll has followed up with two terrific posts (and promises yet another) about this year’s award, and Carmen Drahl, in the context of discussing a researcher’s two “families,” conducted an insightful interview with author Cheryl Renée Herbsman, daughter of Robert Lefkowitz.

The impact of this research cannot be overstated. GPCRs are huge, no question. Easily half the projects I’ve worked on in my career as a medicinal chemist have targeted GPCRs, and many of those that did not still contained one upstream or down in a broader signalling cascade.

In spite of the importance of this research, there has been some complaining about this year’s chemistry Nobel, and others given in recent years. The injured parties argue that the chemistry award is being somehow sullied by including work that isn’t really chemistry—by an overly strict definition. Last year’s award, which was for discovery of quasicrystals by Dan Shechtman, was also criticized by some because it didn’t go to a “real chemist.” This attitude even caught the attention of Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, who viewed the Nobel Committee’s recent decisions “as a call to our profession to embrace the far and influential reach of chemistry.”

In the chemistry blogosphere, there were several calls to abandon this chemistry-purist attitude, including a very nice rebuke by Derek Lowe, who succinctly stated, “Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry.” Derek went on:

And that’s the story of molecular biology for you, right there. As it lives up to its name, its practitioners have had to start thinking of their tools and targets as real, distinct molecules. They have shapes, they have functional groups, they have stereochemistry and localized charges and conformations. They’re chemicals.

In his blog, Chemjobber granted this argument, but is still uncomfortable with the notion. He wrote, “My main complaint against this trend of biology/biologists winning recent chemistry Nobel prizes is that it is beginning to distract from the non-life-sciences aspects of chemistry.”

I mention all this grumbling about the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because a topic covered by this blog is so-called nontraditional careers in chemistry. So far be it from me to criticize the awarding of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry to chemistry research that some may view as nontraditional.

The beta-2 adrenergic receptor—a GPCR.

WARNING: Your body contains chemicals. Lots of them.
Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Breakthrough scientific research often occurs at the boundaries of disciplines. A key insight can be made by someone skilled in another field of science as they view an intractable problem from a previously unappreciated perspective.

Those of us who get worked up over media hysteria regarding things containing chemicals (the horror!) and are deeply critical of consumer products described as “chemical free” have long maintained that everything is made of chemicals. True enough. If so, then we can hardly complain if a Nobel Prize in chemistry is awarded for work in biology, because—repeat after me—biology is chemistry. And as David Kroll rightly pointed out, the tools necessary for elucidating the function of the earliest-understood GPCRs were chemical tools.

This is really nothing new. I’ve heard many times in my career that “all biology is chemistry, and all chemistry is physics.” So…maybe there’s some room in the physics Nobel for some chemistry research? If that happens, will physicists grumble that their Nobel didn’t go to a “real physicist?”

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  • [...] by academics appeared on The Curious Wavefunction, In the Pipeline, Condensed Concepts, and Just Another Electron Pusher, prompting further discussion. Posts about the paper also appeared on Reddit. Taken together, all [...]

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