Oct 12, 2006

Interdisciplinary Nobel Prize...Indication of where the road is headed

I am in an intedisciplinary doctoral program. We have these discussion often. This year's Nobel prize with to Roger Kornberg. (His dad had won it earlier as well). He won it based on his work on transcription. He used crystallographic means to help solve the puzzle.

But chemistry bloggers are disgruntled that Kornberg's use of a chemistry tool — crystallography — was enough to warrant a chemistry Nobel prize. Unofficial mutterings from chemistry department corridors confirm some surprise at the choice of recipient. "It is certainly on the biological side of biochemistry," says Malcolm Green, an inorganic chemist from the University of Oxford, UK.

My crystallography professor was pretty thrilled though. She has been doing interdiscinplinary work and is one of the co-founder of the program that I am part of. So, when she talked about the prize in class, she didn't feel anything was amiss. Here is the rest from Nature News.

People working in the field are thrilled at the news. "Kornberg's work is a tour de force in understanding how transcription works at an atomic level," says Richard Treisman at Cancer Research UK's transcription laboratory in London.

The solution?

"What we need is a biology prize," jokes Robert Schrock, an inorganic chemist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who won the prize for chemistry in 2005. Schrock's prize, shared with Yves Chauvin and Robert Grubbs, was for hard-core chemistry — metathesis, a catalytic reaction used by organic chemists as a way of swapping different groups of atoms in two reacting molecules. This delighted many chemistry fundamentalists, says Schrock, who has heard plenty of grumbles about biology encroaching on chemistry.

Makes sense. If there isn't a biology prize, then biochemistry research will definitely 'encroach' upon chemistry space. It is also apparent that health related or therapeutically relevant discoveries and research are coming to the forefront and are gaining importance. THe more complicated the disease, the greater the requirement for interdisciplinary work.

The 2005 prize came after a run of bio-related chemistry prizes: in 2002 for determining the structure of biological macromolecules; in 2003 for deciphering channels in cell membranes; and in 2004 for the discovery of the role of ubiquitin in intracellular protein degradation. "Chemistry is becoming more applied," Schrock suggests as one reason for the trend. And, after all, "biology is chemistry", he insists.

Chemistry is evolving naturally, says Schrock. There are fewer developments in basic chemistry than in its biological applications, which means that fundamental contributions to chemistry get less recognition. It's a matter of labels, he says. "Chemistry is only going to become more important — however you want to name it."

The Nobel committee for chemistry 2006 is chaired by a professor of theoretical physical chemistry, Håkan Wennerström, from Lund University in Sweden. The rest of the members include: a professor of biophysics, a professor of organic chemistry, a professor of molecular biophysics, a professor of physiological chemistry, and a professor of biochemistry. "No surprise that the prize goes to biostuff," laments one blogger.

But Aaron Klug, who has worked with Kornberg and who won the chemistry prize in 1982 for developing crystallographic electron microscopy and working out the structure of nucleic acid–protein complexes, is happy with the choice. "Kornberg certainly thinks like a chemist," he says. "The whole way he handled the RNA polymerase material is beautiful chemistry."

Klug goes as far as to suggest that this year's physiology and medicine prize, awarded to Andrew Fire and Craig Mello for discovering RNA interference, could also have been a chemistry prize. "The question is whether large molecules are part of chemistry. And of course they are."

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