The Awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to three scientists Wednesday for their work on click chemistry, a method of snapping together molecules like Lego that experts say will soon change the world.
But how exactly does it work?
Imagine two people walking into a mostly empty room towards each other and then shaking hands.
“This is how the classic chemical reaction is done,” said Benjamin Schumann, a chemist at Imperial College London.
But what if there is a lot of furniture and other people blocking the room?
“They may not meet each other,” Schumann said.
Now imagine that these people were molecules, little groups of atoms that form the basis of chemistry.
“Click chemistry makes it possible for two molecules that are in an environment where there are a lot of other things” to meet and combine with each other, he told AFP.
But Caroline Bertozzi, who shared this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Barry Sharpless and Morten Milldahl, said it takes a very special kind of Lego.
She explained to AFP that even if the two Lego planes were “surrounded by millions of other very similar plastic toys,” they would only click on each other.
“Change the playing field”
Around 2000, Sharpless and Meldal separately discovered a specific chemical reaction using copper ions as a catalyst that “changed the playing field” and became “the cream of the crop,” said Silvia Diez-Gonzalez, a chemist at Imperial College London.
This particular method of binding molecules was more flexible, efficient and targeted than was previously possible.
Since its discovery, chemists have discovered all the different types of molecular architecture they can build with their new Lego blocks.
“The applications are almost endless,” said Tom Brown, a British chemist at Oxford University who worked on the chemistry of click DNA.
But there was one problem with the use of copper as a catalyst. It can be toxic to the cells of living organisms – such as humans.
So Bertozzi built on the foundations of Sharpless and Milldahl’s work, designing a “copper-free way to use tap chemistry with biological systems without killing them,” Diez-Gonzalez said.
Previously, Diez-Gonzalez said, the molecules would click together in a straight, flat line — like a seat belt — but Bertozzi discovered that forcing them to “bend a little” made the interaction more stable.
Bertozzi named the field devised by biological orthogonal chemistry – orthogonal means that intersect at right angles.
“Tip of the iceberg”
Diez Gonzalez said she was a little surprised that the field was awarded a Nobel Prize so soon, because “there are not many commercial applications there yet.”
But the future looks bright.
“We’re kind of at the tip of the iceberg,” said American Chemical Society President Angela Wilson, adding that “chemistry is going to change the world.”
There are so many potential uses for click chemistry, Bertozzi said, that “I can’t even enumerate them.”
One of the uses, she said at the Nobel conference, is to develop new drugs, some of which are aimed at “performing the chemistry inside human patients to make sure the drugs go to the right place.”
She added that her laboratory had begun researching potential treatments for the severe coronavirus.
Another hope is that it could lead to a more targeted way of diagnosing and treating cancer, as well as making chemotherapy less, and less severe side effects.
They even created a way to make the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ disease become so fluorescent that they are easy to detect in water supplies.
Already, click chemistry has been used to “create some very durable polymers” that protect from heat, as well as in nano-glue forms.chemistryMeldahl told AFP.
Wilson said other future applications include personalized medicines, antibacterial and antiviral medicines, brightening agents and more.
“I think it will completely revolutionize everything from medicine to materials,” she said.
© 2022 AFP
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