News / Europe

3 US Scientists Win Nobel Chemistry Prize

Laureates Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel as winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry, announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Oct. 9, 2013.
Laureates Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel as winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry, announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Oct. 9, 2013.
This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to three scientists who developed computer programs that have become as important to chemists as test tubes.

These programs accurately simulate how large, complex molecules behave. The work is central to drug discovery, materials science and much more.  

Chemistry is all about the interactions of atoms. But these building blocks of all matter are far too small to see, even with the most powerful microscope.

So, over time, chemists have come up with two different ways of visualizing atoms and the molecules they form. And they have written computer programs to simulate each approach.

2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

  • Martin Karplus of the Universite de Strasbourg and Harvard University
  • Michael Levitt of Stanford University School of Medicine
  • Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles
  • Awarded for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems
  • Winners laid the foundation for powerful computer programs used to understand and predict chemical processes
Competing models

Simpler, classical models “treat the bonds between atoms as springs,” said Middle Tennessee State University chemistry professor Preston MacDougall. "Some springs are stiff, some springs are floppy. Some things twist easily, some things are harder to twist.”

Those models are fine for looking at how the shapes of molecules change in different conditions, for example, when they are hot or cold.

But they don’t tell you much about what happens when bonds between atoms break and reform, as happens in the enzymes that do the work in our bodies.

For that, you need much more accurate and complicated models that use quantum physics.

Computer power

But using quantum models for all the bonds in a big molecule like an enzyme would take an enormous amount of computer power.

“In modeling, as in many aspects of life, there’s a certain ‘you get what you pay for’ aspect,” says University of Minnesota chemist Chris Cramer.

Beginning in the 1970s, Harvard chemist Martin Karplus, Stanford’s Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel at the University of Southern California developed computer models that successfully combined the two.

“They figured out a way to have a connection between the two that would let you have really fine-grained focus on an interesting piece of the big system, while not spending as much (computing power) to include the larger system,” Cramer said.

For example, he said, computer programs today use quantum models to study how a drug will react with the small part of an enzyme that performs chemical reactions. But the programs use simpler classical models to understand how the rest of the enzyme interacts with its surroundings.

These models have proven extremely valuable across the field of chemistry. For instance, scientists designing solar panels use them.

“Certain atoms are absorbing light and undergoing transitions which you must use quantum theory to model,” said Preston MacDougall. “But then, you also want to describe the plastic material that it’s embedded in, so that their bending properties are modeled properly, their thermal expansion, their mechanical properties are also modeled correctly.”

These models are so good that they accurately predict what happens in real life.

And according to the Nobel Prize committee, “Today the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube.”

You May Like

French Refugee Drama Wins Cannes Top Prize

Dheepan is about a group of Sri Lankan refugees who pretend to be a family in order to flee their war-torn country for a housing project in France More

Photogallery Crisis in Macedonia Requires Meaningful and Swift Measures

The international community has called on Macedonian leadership to take concrete measures in support of democracy in order to exit the crisis More

Activists: IS Executes 217 Civilians, Soldiers Near Palmyra

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said the victims include nurses, women, children and Syrian government fighters More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs