The Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been jointly awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa, three chemistry wunderkinds, for their work on the “design and synthesis of molecular machines.”
The winners will receive 8 million Swedish kronor ($940,000) for their painstaking work, which will be split evenly between the three.
A member of the Nobel Committee explained how Sauvage, Stoddard and Feringa – from the University of Strasbourg, Northwestern University, and the University of Groningen, respectively – have spent their lives bringing about the development of tiny nanomachines, incredibly small-scale versions of the simple pumps and engines built in the 19th century that heralded the Industrial Revolution.
“It’s been the dream of scientists over the last century take this achievement down to the molecular scale,” she explained, once again wielding bagels and pretzels to explain the curiousness nature of their discoveries.
Back in 1983, Sauvage’s team made a molecular chain, one where two rings could automatically lock into each other on a scale a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair. Since then, a variety of minuscule devices have been made by all three research groups, proving that it’s possible to control the movement of the smallest molecular bonds.
A statement issued by the Nobels described how “they developed the world’s smallest machines: a tiny lift, artificial muscles, and minuscule motors.” These machines are essentially molecules with controllable movements, which represent a key stepping stone on the winding road towards a future full of nanomachinery that bends to our will.
“I don’t know what to say, and I’m a bit shocked – it was such a great surprise. I’m so honored and emotional about this,” Professor Feringa told journalists via phone.
“The first time movement could be seen with these molecules, I could hardly believe that it worked,” he added. “Once you are able to control movement, you can think of all kinds of use. Think of micro-robots, tiny robots that doctors of the future will inject into your blood stream and search for cancer cells.”
Already, remarkable work is being made using these advances for just this purpose. Origami DNA capsules coated in biochemical components can target and destroy cancer cells, sometimes from the inside out.
“I feel a little bit like the Wright Brothers,” Feringa added. “People back then were saying ‘why do we need a flying machine?’ And now we have Boeing 747s and an AirBus. That’s a little how I feel at the moment.”
Rather wonderfully, Feringa, when asked about how he would be celebrating, said he wanted to give all the credit to his team, particularly the young students and postdocs that have worked alongside him for so long. After all, they’re the ones that will stand on the shoulders of these three newly-awarded giants.
The award ceremony for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Nobel Prize via YouTube