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'Click Chemistry' Nets Nobel Prize for Simplifying Science

Barry Sharpless, Morten Meldal and Carolyn Bertozzi received the award for discovering how to make molecules "snap" together quickly.

Illustration showing the 2022 winners of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, holding click-together molecules
(c) Johan Jarnestad/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was jointly awarded to three scientists on Wednesday for their work in click chemistry, a branch that creates molecular reactions quickly without casting off unwanted derivatives. 

American scientists Barry Sharpless and Carolyn Bertozzi won the award along with Danish chemist Morten Meldal for developing -- and advancing -- molecule-building techniques to map DNA and to make cancer pharmaceuticals and other materials across a range of industries.

"Functional molecules can be built even by taking a straightforward route," said Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. Sharpless and Meldal discovered that click chemistry can be used to easily bond two molecules together for a variety of purposes, including improvements in plastic manufacturing, drug research and agricultural applications. 

This marks the second time Sharpless has won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, making him the fifth person to do so. In 2001, he received the award for his work on chirally catalyzed reactions, and shared the honor with two other scientists. According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, he originated the term "click chemistry" in 2000 after helping develop the method at the Scripps Research Institute. Meldal, whose experiments are independent of Sharpless', also produced a chemical reaction known as the copper catalyzed azide-alkyne cycloaddition, the basis for what's now known as click chemistry.

Bertozzi invented a new method called bioorthogonal reactions, which tracks glycans on the cells of living organisms. Her work has led to insights on how to break down glycans on tumor cells and enable the body's immune system to fight cancer. 

The Nobel Prize announcements began on Monday with Svante Pääbo receiving the award in physiology for Neanderthal genome sequencing. On Tuesday, three scientists won the Nobel in physics for their work on quantum computing. The awards will continue into Monday, Oct. 10, with honors distributed in the fields of literature, economics and peace.