Friday, October 12, 2012

Podcast: "I, for one, Welcome our Biochemical Overlords", Matt Hartings and Chemjobber

So Matt Hartings of ScienceGeist and I got into a fairly heated Twitter debate about the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (awarded to Professors Lefkowitz and Kobilka for their work on GPCRs).

So I invited Matt to give me a call via Skype yesterday so we could discuss our differences, and we recorded the results -- enjoy:

By now, the traditional apologies for sound quality, etc. It's been lightly edited for ums, ahs and my incredibly halting speech. If you want a summary, Matt had better, more substantive arguments in general, and dealt with my counter-arguments easily. He will be using his persuasive powers to round up synthetic chemists to toil in protein crystallography laboratories.

0-4:00: Introduction
4:00: Did Lefkowitz and Kobilka do chemistry?
10:30: CJ's concerns about the trend of biochemical Nobelists
16:30: Whither the chemical enterprise?
24:15: The Dominance of Biochemistry
28:28: Will organic chemists ever win a Nobel Prize ever again?
30:30: Matt's "Ratatouille" analogy
32:00: CJ asks, "How much of bench-level molecular biology is chemistry?"
35:15: Matt gets CJ to cry uncle with the classic #debatefail of "I wasn't arguing that."
40:00: A long digression on the breadth of chemistry as a field
45:10: Matt does an excellent Carl Sagan impression, talking about the "supernova of chemistry."
47:30: Is it time for the Chemistry Diaspora? Matt: No.
49:00: Discussion of impact on chemical education
54:00: The disproportionate media impact of the Nobel
55:00: CJ notes that BLS-projected job growth for biochemists and biophysicists is quite high.
1:03:45: CJ feels a little better
1:05:00 Matt provides a nice summary.


  1. Curie and others discovered the new elements using Chemistry. They isolated them from tons of uranium ore using classical (for us new for them) wet chemistry to eventually precipitate out the new element as a sulphate or the like.
    It was not physics, it was chemistry.
    The new prize is not chemistry but "biology/medicine/biochemistry". They used the tools of chemistry but didn't develop anything really new in the chemical field. So you can't compare them to Curie etal, or Corey, Woodward, Pauling.

  2. Couple quick comments
    1) I don't believe and never said that our field is to be dominated by biochemists/structural biologists.
    2) Quintus, I will agree with you that chemistry was needed to isolate and purify the elements. This is absolutely correct and overlooked by me.
    3) Quintus, do you discount biochemistry from chemistry? I can't possibly agree that they developed nothing new in terms of chemical knowledge. The structure and function (both chemical properties) of this class of protein was fundamentally new to the field AAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNDDDDDDD this knowledge happens to also have a medical impact.

  3. Matt, biochemistry is a side arm of chemistry, I'll grant you that. But the determination of structure and function have always been the fundamental tools of the trade, whether applied to a simple molecule or a protein what's new about that. Plenty of people have determined the structure and function of molecules in biological systems or elsewhere.
    Insulin is the only one I can think of at the moment (to early in the morning for the brain cell to work properly).
    Please tell me the drugs on the market or in phase iii or ii trials using the information generated by this research?
    I worked with one of these receptors for years in med chem trying to design antagonists. We finally managed to isolate and characterise the receptor in terms of structure (AA sequence) and function but never got it crystalline.
    So the novelty here escapes me.
    I'm not decrying their effort in the frontiers of science but I think the Nobel Committee got it wrong.

  4. How many new "fundamental tools of the trade" are we going to get in the future? How many do we expect to have a Nobel-type impact?? I think that catalysis is one area where "real" chemistry will have an impact. Perhaps a new solid state synthesis technique will allow layer-by-layer creation of superconductors. But, I can't imagine any straight fundamental chemistry is going to win anywhere in the near future. The big Nobel-type chemistry peaks out there include - solar cells and solar energy (which consists of getting combinations of known chemicals right - a large part of it anyway), single molecule spectroscopy (which, let's face it, may be more physics than chemistry in terms of the optics required for this research), origin of life (perhaps, but even so, it's finding the right conditions for this to happen). The perception of chemistry (even by many chemists) is that it is now an applied science. These awards (and current chemistry funding) reflect that.
    As far as comparisons ... so what if no technique that they used was new. I don't see how this is relevant. How many synthetic techniques (or biochem techniques) are going to be nobel worthy? I just don't see it happening a lot. I'm sure there are instances where it will happen. I just think that these instances will be in the minority.

  5. OK. So there was a point that I might have been trying to make in the above. I think this post by Derek does it in a way that I can't. Do read if you haven't

  6. As a physical biochemist (or biochemical physicist? chemical physics biologist?), I'm personally insulted by the number of people who decry whether or not this prize falls in the category of "chemistry." When did biochemistry stop being chemistry? I suppose if you want to be really pedantic, the prize should have been a physics one, since all of X-ray crystallography borrows from the work of the great physics duo, the father and son Bragg. Is the work of an organic methods development chemist, who has armies of graduate students working 70+ hrs/wk throwing random chemicals into round bottoms and honing their flash column chromatography skills more Nobel-worthy than this prize?

    If George Whitesides won a Nobel prize, would that be chemistry? He himself would probably identify more as an engineer than a chemist this day and age.

    1. As someone who expressed discomfort at this Prize, let me attempt to clarify my position, and see where you line up:

      1) No one doubted the impact and Nobel-worthiness of the 2012 Prize. Our debate was which prize it deserved, the Chemistry one, or the Medicine one.
      2) I would describe what these men did as much more molecular biology and structural biology than biochemistry, but I dunno. I'm not an expert on their fields, I just like to pretend to be one.
      3) Physical biochemistry in my completely-irrelevant-opinion is indeed chemistry.
      4) There's no need to insult organic metholodogists. It is worth pointing out that to get the Prize, your organic methodology has to be groundbreaking on the level of Sharpless, Knowles, Noyori and/or Grubbs. I don't think anything we're doing recently is going to get there.

      Look, I didn't doubt whether what they were doing was science, or whether it was hugely impactful, it is and was. But to have the occasional category debate is useful, in my opinion, even if the ultimate answer is that categories have limited use.

      Cheers, Chemjobber

    2. Agreed on all points. My jab at organic methods development was uncalled for.

      Keep up the good work. Your blog is a a great read--perhaps the ultimate solution would just be to award more Nobel prizes every year.

    3. No sweat, it happens. And my jab at recent methodologists is probably unwise, as well. I hope that C-H activation and recent catalytic C-F work will get there, too.

      Thanks for the kind words. Thanks for reading and commenting -- I am honored.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20