Israeli scientists win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt are the 11th and 12th Israelis to win a prestigious Nobel Prize in the country’s 65-year history, and the fifth and sixth to win the award in chemistry.

From left to right, Nobel Prize winners Arieh Warshel, Michael Levitt, and Martin Karplus.

From left to right, Nobel Prize winners Arieh Warshel, Michael Levitt, and Martin Karplus.

Israeli scientists Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt were named as two of three winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, along with Austrian-American Martin Karplus. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Wednesday announced that the trio was being awarded “for the development of the multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”

Their research in the 1970s has helped develop computer models mirroring real life, which have “become crucial for most advances made in chemistry today,” the judging committee said.

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Karplus and Warshel developed a computer program that brought together classical and quantum physics back in the early 1970s when they were both at Harvard. Warshel later joined forces with Levitt at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and at the University of Cambridge, to develop a program that could be used to study enzymes.

Their work helps in complex processes such as the development of drugs or photosynthesis. “Scientists can optimize solar cells, catalysts in motor vehicles or even drugs, to take but a few examples,” the academy said.

“In short, what we developed is a way which requires computers to look, to take the structure of the protein and then to eventually understand how exactly it does what it does,” Warshel told a news conference in Stockholm by telephone.

The win was another feather in the cap for Israeli academia. Warshel and Levitt are the 11th and 12th Israelis to win a prestigious Nobel Prize in the country’s 65-year history, and the fifth and sixth to win the award in chemistry.

In the run up to Nobel Prize announcements, pundits had predicted that two Israeli scientists were likely to win the prestigious award. While Hebrew University biochemists Prof. Howard (Chaim) Cedar and emeritus Prof. Aharon Razin had been anticipated to win, ironically the names of Warshel and Levitt were called instead.

Warshel, 72, and Levitt, 66, have ties with the Weizmann Institute of Science, and the former also studied at the Techion Israel Institute of Technology. According to Ynet, Karplus also spent six months at the Weizmann Institute in 1969.

Yakov Peri, Minister of Science, Technology and Space, congratulated the Israeli laureates saying, the “honor brings national pride to Israeli science.”

Peri also said, however, that their achievement “puts a spotlight on the national challenge of returning Israeli minds back home.”

Benny Warshel, brother of the newest Nobel laureate, told Israel Radio that Arieh identifies very strongly with his Israeli roots.

“He fought in this country’s wars, in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and he defends Israel in academic circles,” said Benny. “He’s very connected to this country.”

Arieh Warshel: From kibbutz to Nobel laureate

Arieh Warshel was born in 1940 in Kibbutz Sde Nahum. After serving in the army (leaving with a rank of captain), he completed his BSc degree in chemistry, Summa Cum Laude, at the Technion. He then earned both MSc and PhD degrees in Chemical Physics (in 1967 and 1969, respectively) at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Warshel did postdoctoral work at Harvard University, from 1972 to 1976, and then returned to the Weizmann Institute and worked for the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, England. In 1976, he joined the faculty of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Southern California and today serves as a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

A member of numerous scientific organizations, among them United States National Academy of Sciences and Royal Society of Chemistry, Warshel is acclaimed for pioneering computer simulations of the functions of biological systems, and for developing what is known today as Computational Enzymology.

Warshel told a news conference in Stockholm by telephone that he felt “extremely well” after being contacted by the Swedish Academy of Sciences announcing his win.

Speaking to Hebrew media, he spoke about his pride in being Israeli: “I am definitely an Israeli. I visit the country often. I feel Israeli. My children speak Hebrew.”

Michael Levitt: Splits time between Rehovot and California

Known for work in computational biology especially protein folding, Pretoria-born Levitt, is a biophysicist and Professor of Structural biology at Stanford University.

He received his BSc from King’s College, London and his PhD in computational biology from the University of Cambridge. Levitt was a Royal Society Exchange Fellow at the Weizmann Institute from 1967-1968, and later returned as a professor of chemical physics from 1980-1987.

Today, Levitt splits his time between Israel and the US, he has close family in Israel and owns a home in Rehovot. He is married to an Israeli and they have three sons — one in high-tech, two who are scientific researchers.

The third winner is Karplus, who is also Jewish but not Israeli. However, Karplus has an Israeli connection — his daughter, Dr. Rivka Karplus, is an infectious diseases specialist and family doctor who lives and works in Jerusalem.

He was born in Vienna in 1930 and moved to the US in 1938 to escape the Nazi occupation of Austria. He received a BA degree from Harvard University in 1950, and a Ph.D. from California Institute of Technology in 1953.

Karplus is credited with making important contributions to many fields in physical chemistry, including the nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, chemical dynamics, quantum chemistry, and most notably, the molecular dynamics simulations of biological macromolecules.

Groundbreaking science

“The work of Karplus, Levitt and Warshel is ground-breaking in that they managed to make Newton’s classical physics work side-by-side with the fundamentally different quantum physics,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. “Previously, chemists had to choose to use either or.”

The judging committee noted that Karplus, Levitt and Warshel “took the best from both worlds and devised methods that use both classical and quantum physics.”

While Warshel has spent the last 40 years in the US, he told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that the research for which he was awarded was carried out while he was still in Israel.

Netanyahu congratulated Warshel, saying: “This is exceptionally impressive. We are proud of you and proud of the people who were at the Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science and moved them forward.”

Thanks to the trio, the computer has become just as “important a tool for chemists as the test tube” and help allow simulations to predict the outcome of traditional experiments.

*Photos of Levitt and Warshel via Wikipedia.

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About Viva Sarah Press

Viva Sarah Press is an associate editor and writer at ISRAEL21c. She has extensive experience in reporting/editing in the print, online and broadcast fields. She has jumped out of a plane, ducked rockets and been attacked by a baboon all in the name of a good story. Her work has been published by international media outlets including Israel Television, CNN, Reuters, The Jerusalem Post and Time Out.