Nobel Prize in Chemistry Rewards Research Into Snapping Molecules Together

Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless received the award for developing new tools that will improve medicine

Members of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry seated at a table announcing 2022's winners. Pictures of the winners are displayed on a screen behind them.
Members of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry address a press conference to announce the winners in Stockholm on October 5, 2022.  Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

Carolyn R. Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and K. Barry Sharpless received the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday. Their work into snapping together molecular building blocks to make complex molecules has broad applications to pharmaceutical development, medicine and material sciences, reports the Washington Post’s Mark Johnson.

The scientists’ research “has led to a revolution in how chemists think about linking molecules together,” Johan Aqvist, the chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said during the announcement of the award, according to Mark Peplow of Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN).

It can be challenging for scientists to study reactions between molecules, particularly in natural environments, write Cora Engelbrecht, Euan Ward and Oliver Whang of the New York Times. Combining molecules can alter surrounding molecules that researchers want to observe undisturbed.

But what if “molecular entities could be found that would have the power of making connections and ignoring everything else around them?” M.G. Finn, a chemist who collaborated with Sharpless, tells Stat News’  Brittany Trang. Sharpless and his collaborators introduced the concept of “click chemistry” in 2001—relying on chemical bonds that form quickly and are able to make stable byproducts, according to the Times.

K. Barry Sharpless in front of a chalkboard addressing a reporters and colleagues at Scripps Research Institute in 2001.
The 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was jointly given to K. Barry Sharpless, the second time he has received the award. In this picture from October 10, 2001, he addresses reporters and colleagues at Scripps Research Institute after winning the 2001 award. Andrew Silk/AFP via Getty Images

Sharpless and Meldal then independently developed the first click chemistry reactions in the early 2000s. They both used copper to catalyze a reaction between azide and alkyne molecules, per C&EN. “You can take molecules that are highly functionalized and click them together in a very selective, very specific way,” Bertozzi tells C&EN. “That’s a rare quality in a reaction.”

“Almost anything you look at these days, you can find an example of where this chemistry has been applied,” Jon Lorsch, the director of the National Institute of General Medical Science, tells the Times.

Morten Meldal poses for a photo at the University of Copenhagen.
Morten Meldal poses for photo at the University of Copenhagen after he was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on October 5, 2022.  Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

Bertozzi built on their work and found a way to modify molecules in living things without affecting processes occurring within the cells, according to the Washington Post. Her work allows for molecules to be mapped within cells.

“The tools [Bertozzi] has made open up new avenues for understanding how cells interact with each other and their environments and offer up new avenues for intervening in diseases such as cancer and infections,” Dr. Eric Rubin, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, tells Stat News.

Carolyn Bertozzi poses for a photo in front of a building on Stanford University's campus.
Carolyn Bertozzi poses for a photo in front of the Sapp Center for Science Teaching and Learning at Stanford University after she was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on October 5, 2022.  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Click chemistry has been “transformative” in many areas of chemistry, materials science, biology and medicine, Tom Brown, a chemist at the University of Oxford in England, tells the Post. Its applications include drug development and delivery and the study of biological processes to better understand diseases and potential treatments, writes Stat News. Click chemistry is being used in clinical trials of a cancer treatment, for example, per C&EN.

Sharpless, who previously won the chemistry Nobel in 2001, is the fifth person to win two Nobels, and joins Marie Curie and Frederick Sanger as the only two-time winners of the chemistry award, per the Post. Bertozzi is the eighth woman to win the chemistry prize and the first since 2020, according to the Times. Bertozzi is also the second openly LGBTQ winner of a Nobel this year, along with Svante Pääbo, the recipient of the physiology or medicine prize.

The three winners will equally share the 10 million kronor (roughly $900,000) prize.

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