Nobel Prize for scientists who pioneered ‘click chemistry’

5 Oct 2022

Illustration of Carolyn R Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K Barry Sharpless. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Nobel Prize

K Barry Sharpless, Morten Meldal and Carolyn R Bertozzi pushed this field of chemistry forward. It is now used in pharma, DNA mapping and to explore cells.

Three scientists from the US and Denmark have been awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in ‘click chemistry’.

This functional form of chemistry involves molecular building blocks snapping together quickly and efficiently. The Nobel Committee said today (5 October) that the work of K Barry Sharpless and Morten Meldal “laid the foundation” in this field.

Carolyn R Bertozzi then took click chemistry to a “new dimension” when she started utilising it in living organisms.

Sharpless – who is being awarded his second Nobel Prize in Chemistry – coined the concept of click chemistry around the year 2000.

Shortly after, Sharpless and Meldal independently presented an efficient chemical reaction that has various uses in areas such as pharmaceuticals, DNA mapping and creating materials that are more fit for purpose. This “crown jewel” of click chemistry is called the copper catalysed azide-alkyne cycloaddition.

Bertozzi then developed click reactions that work inside living organisms in order to map glycans, which are elusive biomolecules on the surface of cells. These bioorthogonal reactions don’t disrupt the normal chemistry of the cell.

These reactions are now used globally to explore cells and track biological processes. Bioorthogonal reactions have also benefitted the targeting of cancer pharmaceuticals, which are now being tested in clinical trials.

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

Who are they?

Sharpless received his PhD in chemistry at Stanford University in 1968. He is a professor at Scripps Research and leads the Sharpless Lab at this institute.

Sharpless received half the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001 for his work on chirally catalysed oxidation reactions. He is now the fifth scientist to have received two Nobel prizes – and the second to do so in chemistry.

Meldal received his PhD from the Technical University of Denmark and is currently a professor at the University of Copenhagen. He started his career as an engineer but told AP News that he wanted to understand the world and “thought chemistry would give me the solutions”.

Bertozzi completed her undergraduate degree in chemistry at Harvard University and her PhD at UC Berkeley. She became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in 2000 and joined Stanford University in June 2015.

Earlier this week, three scientists were awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics for their “groundbreaking experiments” in quantum mechanics, while a Swedish geneticist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “pioneering research” in extinct hominins and human evolution.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic