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Nobel Chemistry Prize Goes To Scientists Who Made Computer Models


This year's Nobel Prize in chemistry was announced today. It goes to three scientists who brought chemistry out of the lab and onto the computer. They collaborated during the 1960s and 70s, back when the best computers had far less power than today's calculators. As NPR's Richard Harris reports, the work they pioneered is now central to both chemistry and biology.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Michael Levitt was living in London as a teenager when his mother decided to sign him up for a computer class. This was the early 1960s when computers were rudimentary.

MICHAEL LEVITT: But on this computer, we had a program like punching holes into tape. And I think I wrote a program to play tic-tac-toe. But it really made me very excited about programming.

HARRIS: Levitt also had a passion for science. And soon, he was trying to think about how to use computers to mimic the invisible world of chemistry.

LEVITT: Things were very, very crude in those days. And I think that I succeeded. I just didn't know it was impossible.

HARRIS: Levitt's early scientific career steered him to the Weizmann Institute in Israel. There he met a man who will share this year's Nobel Prize with him, Arieh Warshel. Warshel was working on the same basic problem.

ARIEH WARSHEL: They did have a computer called the Golem.

HARRIS: The name comes from a fictional robot in Jewish folklore. Warshel and Levitt used the computer to construct virtual molecules. Warshel was trying to simulate small molecules, but Levitt had bigger ambitions.

LEVITT: When I came along, I said, couldn't we use this to look at big molecules?

HARRIS: The answer turned out to be yes. And the way they did it was to break down the problem into simple enough pieces so the computer could handle them. They identified a few basic formulas that explained how molecules are put together rather than trying to mimic the behavior of each and every atom in a large molecule. Warshel says this was the secret to his career.

WARSHEL: With a computer, you could go to the initial formula, which is using a very simple - and just do it.

HARRIS: What is your proudest achievement in this whole thing?

WARSHEL: It's a hard question. This probably was also problem for the Nobel committee because I write too many things of being firsts.

HARRIS: The first that Warshel is proudest of, though, is using computers to figure out how enzymes work. Enzymes are large molecules that are everywhere in living beings. They construct stuff inside ourselves or deconstruct them or take on countless other tasks that make up the machinery of life.

WARSHEL: The only way to know how the enzyme works is to use computers.

HARRIS: Once Warshel and Levitt wrote the basic computer program to do this, Warshel went off to Harvard University to do post-doctoral research with Martin Karplus. Karplus shares this Chemistry Nobel because he improved this approach considerably by incorporating some of the rules of physics that worked on the scale of the atoms inside of molecules.

Warshel ended up at the University of Southern California. Levitt is at the Stanford University Medical School. He has used computers to custom-design antibodies, which are large and complicated molecules that are used throughout medicine for things like cancer treatments.

LEVITT: The work I'm doing now excites probably more than the Nobel Prize. This is a funny thing to say because I'm super excited about the Nobel Prize.

HARRIS: And the field is going gangbusters. His latest excitement is that the graphics hardware used to make computers fast for gaming can also be used in his science.

LEVITT: And they can be used very effectively to speed things up by factors of a hundred.

HARRIS: But with all this promise, Levitt also sees some trouble brewing for science in the United States. He says, because of the federal funding sequester, he lost a grant that has helped him explore the frontier of science for more than 20 years. He hopes that the nation and its politicians are not losing sight of the American leadership that has made science here so strong for so long.

Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
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