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AAAS Fellows Carolyn Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless Receive Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Black and gold illustrations of the three winners of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless are the 2022 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry. | Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

Two chemists previously honored by AAAS as elected fellows are the newest Nobel laureates. Carolyn Bertozzi of Stanford University and K. Barry Sharpless of Scripps Research are two of three winners of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Along with Morten Meldal of University of Copenhagen, they have been honored for “for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Oct. 5. The three scientists split the 10 million Swedish krona prize equally.

“Click chemistry is almost like it sounds. It's all about snapping molecules together,” Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said at the announcement of the prize. “Imagine that you could attach small chemical buckles to different types of building blocks. Then you could link these buckles together and produce molecules of greater complexity and variation.”

Seeking to harness the power of intrinsic bonds between molecules and avoid unwanted side reactions, Sharpless first coined the concept of click chemistry about 20 years ago. He and Meldal, working independently, found the right “buckles” that easily snap together. The “crown jewel of click chemistry,” as the Nobel committee termed it, is the copper catalyzed azide-alkyne cycloaddition, which has been a building block used in new drug molecules, polymers and purpose-built materials. 

“This year’s prize is about an ingenious tool for building molecules,” said Hans Ellegren, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Bertozzi brought click chemistry to a new arena: inside living organisms. She developed a way to use click chemistry without copper or other toxic materials to avoid interfering with the cell’s biochemistry. These “bioorthogonal reactions” have a number of applications, such as tracking biomolecules, diagnostics and drug delivery, including cancer pharmaceuticals currently in clinical trials.

Sharpless also won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; with today’s honor, he becomes one of only five people to win two Nobel Prizes and only two people to win two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry. He was recognized by AAAS as an elected fellow in 1985. The lifetime honor has been given since 1874 to recognize scientists, engineers and innovators for their scientifically and socially distinguished achievements in the scientific enterprise.

Bertozzi was named a AAAS fellow in 2001. She was also honored by AAAS with the 2022 Lifetime Mentor Award, which recognizes university faculty and administrators with distinguished records of mentoring and leadership to increase the amount of underrepresented minority students, women and first-generation students who complete a Ph.D. in a STEM field. 

“I consider it a great privilege to be in a position to mentor brilliant and motivated young scientists, help launch their careers, and contribute to diversification of the scientific workforce,” Bertozzi told AAAS.

Said Åqvist on the power of Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs, “This year’s Prize in Chemistry deals with not overcomplicating matters, instead working with what is easy and simple.”

Yet such simplicity has yielded great advances. As the committee noted in its press release, “This is bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Author

Andrea Korte

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