Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

And the winner is…


This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome. The reaction of an inorganic chemist (me), a physical chemist (Gavin), an organic chemist (Laura) and a supramolecular chemist (Stuart) was along the lines of ‘biology again’. The Twitter-sphere seems to agree:

@sciencebase: Couldn’t they create a separate #biology Prize? So disappointing when real chemists miss out. #nobel09 #chemistry

@LeighJKBoerner Sigh. Another yr, another chem Nobel awarded for biology. In last 10 yrs, only 1/2 of the prizes have gone to chemistry.#nobel09 #chemistry

@LeighJKBoerner I’m not saying that the ribosome discoveries weren’t worthy of a Nobel. I just wish there were a biology category. #nobel09 #chemistry

@simon_frantz For anyone debating whether today’s Prize is biol. or chem., see Roger Kornberg’s answer in 2006 (~50 sec in) #nobel09

@simon_frantz Another Chemistry Prize fact as told to me an hour or so ago. Ada Yonath is the first female Chemistry Laureate for 45 years #nobel09

@michaelgrr ribosome can assemble itself and do its job all in a test tube, no cell required. thus it is definitely #chemistry .#nobel09

@xiquitabacana biology at the moment is the most exciting science? #nobel09 #biology

@Hugenay23 Is biology science? };→ RT @xiquitabacana: biology at the moment is the most exciting science? #nobel09 #biology

@mgberlin Nobel prize in chemistry goes to biology. Not very encouraging to an aspiring inorganic chemist. #nobel09 #chemistry

@rpg7twit Chemistry don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zing! #nobel09

This isn’t to suggest that the discovery wasn’t prize-worthy (far from it – having done a bit of powder diffraction I can just about begin to imagine exactly how hard protein crystallography is). I guess we’d just like to see it go to some of the areas of chemistry that we know and love. Maybe even to people who, if affiliated to a university, would be in the chemistry department…

On the positive side, it goes to show just how broad – and impressive – chemistry can be. Read Stu’s take on it in our research highlight.


Neil Withers (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)


  1. Report this comment

    Bryan H said:

    The fact that Ramakrishnan, Steitz and Yonath study a biological system does not preclude their work from begin classified as chemistry. In fact, I would argue that this year’s Nobel, as well as Kornberg’s, are closer to chemistry than last year’s Nobel prize for the discovery of GFP. Discovering GFP is purely a pursuit of molecular biology: identifying the genes, proteins and other molecules that are responsible for biological phenomena. The only chemistry really came from Tsien whose work elucidated how GFP fluoresces and applied that knowledge to develop new fluorescent proteins. This year’s chemistry laureates, however, have been focusing on elucidating the molecular mechanisms of peptide synthesis by a catalyst that is a very complicated supramolecular assembly.

    To me, chemistry is the study of atomic and molecular structure and understanding how these structures affect the properties of molecules and molecular assemblies. In this respect, the work of Ramakrishnan, Steitz and Yonath falls right into the heart of what chemists do.

    (disclaimer: I used to do structural biology, so I am biased in this regard)

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    Valentin Ananikov said:

    Two plausible reasons to give chemistry prizes to biology:

    1) research in chemistry does not lead to great discoveries of fundamental importance and practical value as compared to research in biology (the era of chemistry is over);

    2) current members of the nobel committee in chemistry better understand biology and the prize reflects their preferences. Four out of six current members have an expertise as bio-.

    I am curious which one of the above has more influence.

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    Sean said:

    Good points Bryan in bringing up the GFP situation although two wrongs don’t make a right 🙂 Overall, I agree that this search is well within the realm of chemistry.