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Chemists win Nobel Prize for 'bringing the experiment to cyberspace'

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Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel to share $1.2 million prize

nobel prize (flickr)
nobel prize (flickr)

Drs. Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing computer models used to predict and understand chemical processes. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the decision Wednesday morning at a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden. The three chemists will share a monetary prize of 8 million Swedish krona ($1.2 million), to be awarded at a ceremony in December.

The Austrian-born Karplus, 83, is an emeritus professor at Harvard University and the Université de Strasbourg in France. He, Levitt, and Warshel began their work in the 1970s, laying the groundwork for a model capable of simulating classical Newtonian processes alongside quantum physics. Their work proved to be remarkably forward-looking, prefiguring an era where chemical processes are modeled not with "plastic balls and sticks," as the Academy noted, but with powerful computer simulations.

"you can use it to design drugs, or in my case, to satisfy your curiosity."

"In short what we developed was a way which requires a computer to take the structure of a protein and then to eventually understand how exactly it does what it does," Warshel, an Israeli-born professor at the University of Southern California, told reporters. "If you have an enzyme that digests food ... you want to understand how this is happening, and you can use it to design drugs, or in my case, to satisfy your curiosity."

With today's announcement, Warshel becomes the sixth Nobel Laureate born in Israel, while Levitt, a professor at Stanford University, becomes the ninth to hail from South Africa. Together with Karplus, they created a way for researchers to map atomic processes that had previously been invisible to the human eye, providing new and more complete insight into dynamics that unfold within a fraction of a millisecond. (For an accessible summary of their work, click here.)

"The work of Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel is ground- breaking in that they managed to make Newton’s classical physics work side-by-side with the fundamentally different quantum physics," the Nobel committee said in a statement Wednesday. "Previously, chemists had to choose to use either or."

Last year's Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for their work on G-protein-coupled receptors, which helped explain how human cells sense chemicals and external stimuli. Like this year's recipients, Lefkowitz and Kobilka shared a $1.2 million prize.