Click chemistry, a Nobel Prize-winning molecular assembly tool

Like the Nobel Prize in Physics, this year’s promotion in the chemistry category was long-awaited by professionals as the excellent work spread through the laboratories and made life easier for many scientists over the past twenty years.

The American Carolyn R. Bertozzi, 55 years old (Stanford University), the Dane Morten Meldal, 68 years old (University of Copenhagen) and the American Karl Barry Sharpless, 81 years old (Scripps Research), are awarded for their method invention of the original and synthesis widely used today, click chemistry for the last two, and bioorthogonal chemistry for the eighth woman to receive this prestigious medal in the discipline. Barry Sharpless is the second chemist, after Britain’s Frederick Sanger, to have received two Nobel Prizes in chemistry; the first was awarded to him in 2001 for selective synthetic methods.

Also read: The 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to Frenchman Alain Aspect, an American and an Austrian for their work on the quantum revolution

“The reaction Sharpless invented is fantastic and it’s a brilliant idea, but it’s also a good marketing move with the name – chemistry click – that appeals to everyone, even non-chemists.”says Jean-François Kidney Garden, Research Director of the CNRS at the Laboratory of Molecular Chemistry of Materials in Strasbourg.

K. Barry Sharpless, co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in October 2001 at the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla (USA).

The name actually sums up the whole salt of the method. When the art of chemistry is putting molecules together, it’s not always easy, and the technique developed independently by Barry Sharpless and Morten Meldal in 2002 makes it possible to put together almost any block or molecular fragment. Making large chains of atoms, adding a luminescent part, making molecules with multiple branches…become tasks accessible to most labs.

The winners actually invented a kind of Lego: to put two different molecules together, you add a ‘pin’ to one block and a ‘hole’ to the other to make them fit together. In fact, chemists speak of the “needle and hole” of alkyne, two carbons linked by a triple bond as in acetylene, and azide, three linked nitrogen atoms.

A first article in 2001

Then these two parts connect with a “click” and allow to compose what is desired, with a ring of three nitrogens and two carbons in the middle. Easy ? Except that if no third element is added, the result is quite variable and unwanted products are obtained. Barry Sharpless and Morten Meldal found that the addition of copper produced exactly and only the expected product.

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