There's been a bit of back-and-forth in the chemblogo/Twittersphere about whether or not this is another "biology" prize for the Chemistry Nobel, and whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing. The most eloquent defenders of the position that it is indeed a good thing include the two most eloquent writers in the chemblogosphere, Derek Lowe and Ash of The Curious Wavefunction. From Derek:
Biology isn't invading chemistry - biology is turning into chemistry. Giving the prize this year to Lefkowitz and Kobilka takes us from the first cloning of a GPCR (biology, biology all the way) to a detailed understanding of their molecular structure (chemistry!) And that's the story of molecular biology for you, right there. As it lives up to its name, its practitioners have had to start thinking of their tools and targets as real, distinct molecules. They have shapes, they have functional groups, they have stereochemistry and localized charges and conformations. They're chemicals. That's what kept occurring to me at the recent chemical biology conference I attended: anyone who's serious about understanding this stuff has to understand it in terms of chemistry, not in terms of "this square interacts with this circle, which has an arrow to this box over here, which cycles to this oval over here with a name in the middle of it. . ." Those old schematics will only take you so far.
So, my fellow chemists, cheer the hell up already. Vast new territories are opening up to our expertise and our ways of looking at the world, and we're going to be needed to understand what to do next. Too many people are making me think of those who objected to the Louisiana Purchase or the annexation of California, who wondered what we could possibly ever want with those trackless wastelands to the West and how they could ever be part of the country. Looking at molecular biology and sighing "But it's not chemistry. . ." misses the point. I've had to come around to this view myself, but more and more I'm thinking it's the right one.In Ash's comments on the prize, he comments that he's tired with this ages-old debate:
I have to say that the whole “But is this chemistry?!” meme is getting quite boring. Binding of a small molecule to a GPCR is as much of a molecular interaction as anything in chemistry. Plus, think about the downstream chemistry that GPCRs do, including phosphorylation and salt-bridge breakage. I thought chemists were supposed to rub their hands with glee at the reduction of biology to chemistry while biologists fret and fume. But I see the opposite, biologists being quite sanguine about proteins being awarded medicine Nobels while chemistry continue to complain about proteins (chemicals!) being awarded chemistry Nobels. As I have said before though, this very bickering shows the astonishing reach and diversity of the field. If you can’t even agree on a definition for your field, well, that means your field is truly omnipresent.There are a number of questions/complaints that have been raised with this trend in the chemistry Nobels -- here are some that I have heard and agree with:
- While chemists may have a more-and-more expansive definition of chemistry, do biologists agree with this redefinition/annexation? What have biologists said about this?
- If we asked Professors Lefkowitz and Kobilka last week if they were chemists, would they have said yes or no? Is this relevant?
- This is chemistry's one day to bask in the media spotlight. We have emphasized biological chemistry for the 6 of the last 13 Nobels (h/t SeeArrOh). Is this the right mix?
- What does this trend tell graduate students in other, non-life-science-oriented chemistry fields?
- If you are using the tools of chemistry to do biology, are you a chemist? If you are not a chemist and yet advance the understanding of chemistry, should you be considered for the chemistry Nobel? (My answer: yes, certainly.)
- Isn't this just a sign that the Nobels, their strictures and the way they are awarded are a terrible way to highlight scientific merit and achievement? Should judged awards for science look more like the Heisman Trophy or the Westminster Dog Show?