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Issue #78: The second Nobel year in the time of COVID-19: Literature and Chemistry

11 Oct 2021

Issue #78: The second Nobel year in the time of COVID-19: Literature and Chemistry

During the first week in October, the Swedish Nobel Foundation announces the names of those who will be recognised by the Nobel Prizes in Medicine, Physics, Chemistry and Literature, beginning with Medicine on the Monday and concluding with Literature on the Thursday. As I write this on Friday, 8 October, the Peace Laureates will be named tonight (Australian time) by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and we are yet to learn who is to be honoured by the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, generally known as the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Normally, with some interruptions due to the two world wars, the recipients would accept their awards on 10 December – the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death – in Stockholm from the hand of the King of Sweden, or in Oslo from the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Again, as in 2020, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic will mean that this does not happen and they will stay back home. Later, the Laureates will be invited to attend (at least in Stockholm) the big party of a future Nobel week (#27).

Last year, I wrote more about the Nobel prizes, including my own experience (#27) and the 2020 Medicine award to Michael Houghton, Harvey Alter and Charles Rice for the discovery of hepatitis C virus (#28). That seemed particularly apt for year one of COVID-19! Then the Chemistry prize to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuel Charpentier for inventing the CRISPR/Cas9 ‘genetic scissors’ was met with enormous enthusiasm by the molecular science community as it has so much potential for application to everything from agriculture to enhance food production to medicine, including infectious disease. This year’s science Nobels are not so obviously related to COVID-19 but, listening to the announcements caused me to think a little about linkages to the story of SARS-CoV-2 and us. Increasingly discoveries in one area of science spill over in ways that inform another, while great literature almost always explores the human experience under various forms of stress, and COVID-19 is a global ‘stressor’ in every possible sense.

This morning, we Antipodeans woke to the news the 2021 Literature Laureate is Tanzanian born English citizen Abdulrazak Gurnah. I haven’t read anything by him, though I look forward to doing so as he sounds to be a very different type of novelist. Recently retired from a professorship at the University of Kent, he fled conflict in Zanzibar at age 18 and found refuge in the UK. In elegant English sentences that incorporate the occasional Swahili word, or reference to the Koran, Gurnah evidently explores the refugee experience of dislocation and alienation from the early background of an East African Islamic perspective. With COVID-19 we are, of course, massively concerned about the fates of displaced people in refugee camps, and with the need to get vaccines to Africa. Then, it is the refugees living in western societies who work low paid jobs that require them to be ‘out there’, and at high risk of infection, in the broader community. As a consequence of poverty, overcrowding and exposure, their death rates are generally higher.

Announced on Wednesday, the Chemistry Laureates were named as Benjamin List and David MacMillan, born in Germany and Scotland respectively. Located at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California when he made his discovery, List is a Professor at the University of Cologne and at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research. Having worked at the University of California, Berkeley, then Harvard and now Princeton, MacMillan is a more permanent member of the global ‘science diaspora’. From personal experience, that has its own element of social dislocation, though generally less stressful than that explored in Gurnah’s fiction.

List and MacMillan are jointly recognised for independent discoveries that greatly simplify the catalysis of molecular interactions that evidently contribute to some 35% of global GDP. Their citation is for the ‘development of asymmetric organocatalysis’ related particularly to the creation of mirror image molecules that can have very different properties. List found that chemical reactions enabled by the large protein enzyme Aldolase A could be greatly simplified by substituting a tiny amino acid, proline, that works just as well when it comes to facilitating complex molecular assemblies. MacMillan was recognised for his innovations in designing and building small organic molecules that drive chemical reactions, and he is also a leader in photoredox catalysis, which uses ordinary light to break and rejoin atomic bonds, one electron at a time.

When it comes to COVID-19, List and MacMillan’s work has major significance for the development of novel therapeutics. The example given at the time of the announcement was the influenza antiviral Oseltamivir – Tamiflu – which initially required a 12-step synthesis that can now be reduced to 5-steps following their discoveries. Every step has both an economic cost and an environmental impact, so achieving such change across a whole range of applications in organic and synthetic chemistry has a massive impact. Interestingly MacMillan, in particular, has also contributed to the design of solar cells, with the 2021 Physics Nobel being focused on climate change and the analysis of complex systems. Next week, we’ll continue with a discussion of this year’s Physics and Medicine awards.

Setting it Straight by Laureate Professor Peter Doherty Archive