(Adds Royal Society of Chemistry in 10th paragraph.)
Oct. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for devising computer models that can be used to simulate chemical processes, providing a powerful aid to research in fields ranging from medicine to solar energy.
Martin Karplus, 83, of the University of Strasbourg and Harvard University, Michael Levitt, 66, of Stanford University and Arieh Warshel, 73, of the University of Southern California will share the 8 million-krona ($1.2 million) award, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said today in Stockholm. Karplus is a citizen of the U.S. and Austria, Levitt is an American and British citizen, while Warshel has U.S. and Israeli citizenship.
The work by the men in the 1970s helped overcome the limitations of traditional experiments, where chemical reactions occur so quickly that scientists can’t keep up with the process. Their research allowed simulations of the outcome of experiments, helping other scientists to optimize solar cells, catalysts in motor vehicles and medicines, the academy said.
“They have combined quantum chemistry with experimental models,” Marinda Wu, the president of the American Chemical Society, said in a telephone interview today. “The models let us slow down reactions and let us look at them one piece at a time.”
Karplus, who was born in Vienna, worked in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, laboratory at Harvard early in the 1970s to develop programs that could simulate chemical reactions with the help of quantum physics, according to the academy. Warshel and Levitt, born in Pretoria, South Africa, worked together at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Warshel, a native of Sde Nahum, a kibbutz in northern Israel, later worked at Karplus’s laboratory on a program he developed with Levitt.
A computer allows researchers to see how a protein works, “to eventually understand how exactly it does what it does,” Warshel said by phone to the Nobel news conference. “It’s like seeing a watch and wondering how actually it works. You want to understand how this is happening and then you could use it, for example, to design drugs or just like in my case to satisfy your curiosity.”
The first step was a melding of quantum mechanics, a method that can show how chemical bonds are formed and broken in small molecules, with classical physics, which can accurately depict how molecules look, but not how they react. Karplus and Warshel succeeded in marrying the two approaches for a number of flat molecules in the early 1970s.
Warshel and Levitt built on this work to show it was possible to model large biomolecules, and later simplified their methods even further so that intricate biological mechanisms that involve a multitude of atoms, such as the folding of a protein, could be calculated.
Karplus said in a paper published in 2002 that his desire to understand biological processes emerged from an early passion for birdwatching. As a photographer, he also exhibited pictures he took with his Leica IIIC camera between 1953 and 1965 at France’s National Library in Paris this year.
The laureates gave scientists “incredibly powerful tools,” Dominic Tildesley, president-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said in a telephone interview. “We can find the traits of proteins based on their structure,” he said, allowing drug developers to tweak experimental medicines to maximize efficacy and reduce side effects.
Last year’s Nobel in chemistry was awarded to Robert J.Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka for discovering receptors, proteins that receive and transmit messages to cells, and are the basis for as much as half of all today’s medicines.
Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896.
--With assistance from Allison Connolly in London. Editors: Phil Serafino, Marthe Fourcade