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American, 2 Japanese Share Nobel In Chemistry

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.�

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

You know, we have some more Nobel Prize winners to talk about today, in chemistry. The prize will be shared by three chemists working independently -two in the United States and one in Japan.�

They developed ways of making complex materials that are based on carbon. Oh, good, more carbon today. Yesterday we heard about incredible inventions based on unbelievably thin sheets of carbon. And today we're going to talk about carbon used to make everything from cancer-fighting drugs to molecules that could lead to new computer screens.

We're going to talk about this with NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Joe, Good morning.

JOE PALCA: Morning to you.

INSKEEP: OK. So who are the winners here?

PALCA: OK. The winners are: number one, Richard Heck, who is an American citizen currently living in the Philippines; Ei-Ichi Negishi, who is a Japanese citizen, who is a professor at Purdue University; and Akira Suzuki, who is a Japanese citizen living in - working in Hokkaido University in Japan.

INSKEEP: Wow, a diverse group of people. What did they do?

PALCA: Well, Steve, if you'll cast your mind back to yesterday, Dan Charles talked about this graphene compound which can do all sorts of remarkable things. And he said, well, it's easy, you know, it makes you feel like you could do something that would win a Nobel Prize.

INSKEEP: Put some Scotch tape on carbon. Yeah.

PALCA: Right. Not today, Steve.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Unless you happen to have a well-equipped organic chemistry lab in your house. This is heavy stuff. The prize was given for palladium-catalyzed cross-couplings in organic synthesis. As I'm sure everyone knows...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: No. Here's the best explanation of this that I can give you in a short period of time.

INSKEEP: OK. By the way, you lost me at palladium. I'm thinking about a theater somewhere...

PALCA: Palladium is a metal.

INSKEEP: OK.

PALCA: And first of all - so palladium is a catalyst in this particular case. What that means is, it doesn't actually go into the reaction. It doesn't come out at the end of it. But it speeds up the reaction. It makes the reaction do something that might not happen on its own. That's what catalysts are. And palladium happens to be an important catalyst.

INSKEEP: OK.

PALCA: What this reaction is for is joining carbon molecules together in interesting new ways, not in these flat sheets, but in complex three-dimensional compounds that can have remarkable properties.

INSKEEP: Meaning that this could be a drug or a computer screen? That's pretty wild.

PALCA: Well, yes. And you'll also remember yesterday, Dan got to talk about a hamster? I get to talk about a sponge.

INSKEEP: OK.

PALCA: So the sponge is something called Discodermia dissoluta. And it was discovered by scuba divers in the Caribbean in the late 1980s. It lives about 108 feet down. And the interesting thing about this little guy is that he lacks eyes, a mouth, a stomach and bones.

INSKEEP: OK.

PALCA: But he manages to get rid of predators by making complex organic molecules. Am I getting to you here? The connection is becoming clear? Making complex organic molecules, which are poisonous to the attackers of this sponge. So scientists got this Discodermia...

INSKEEP: Alright.

PALCA: ...and isolated a compound from it called discodermolide. And they found out it had anti-cancer properties. Well, that's great. But you can't collect enough sponges to get this stuff into any kind of useful...

INSKEEP: So you've got to make it?

PALCA: So you've got to make it. So that's what these reactions have done. They have allowed organic chemists to recreate this discodermolide...

INSKEEP: Yeah...

PALCA: ...in the lab, and now they're testing it as a cancer drug.

INSKEEP: We've just got a few seconds here. But, Joe, this is reminding me of the story that everybody learns about the discovery of penicillin. It was something that was found in nature and the challenge was to make lots and lots of it artificially, or just to make lots and lots of somehow.

PALCA: Well, that's what's happening. You know, nature has figured out a lot of really remarkable reactions. And the trick, as you say, is to put them into some kind of format where you can use them in a commercial process and make enough of it to use.

INSKEEP: And three chemists working independently have come up with this process and they win the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

PALCA: Right.

INSKEEP: NPR's Joe Palca, thanks very much.

PALCA: You betcha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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