Three US scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry yesterday for pioneering work on computer programs that simulate complex chemical processes and have accelerated progress in areas as diverse as drugs and solar energy.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 8 million kronor (US$1.25 million) prize to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel, saying that their work had effectively taken chemistry into cyberspace. Gone are the days of modelling reactions using plastic balls and sticks.
“Today, the computer is just as important a tool for chemists as the test tube,” the academy said in a statement. “Computer models mirroring real life have become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today.”
For example, in drug design, researchers can now use computers to calculate how an experimental medicine will react with a particular target protein in the body by working out the interplay of atoms.
However, the approach also has applications in industrial processes, such as the design of solar cells or catalysts used in cars.
Ultimately, the ability to computerize such complex chemical processes might make it possible to simulate a complete living organism at the molecular level — something Levitt has described as one of his dreams.
Karplus, a US and Austrian citizen, carries out research at the University of Strasbourg and Harvard University, while Levitt, a US and British citizen, is at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Warshel, a US and Israeli citizen, is a professor at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
“It has revolutionized chemistry,” Kersti Hermansson, a professor of organic chemistry at Uppsala University, said of the computer modelling.
“When you solve equations on the computer, you obtain information that is at such detail it is almost impossible to get it from any other method... You can really follow like a movie, in time and in space. This is fantastic detail,” she said.
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