The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to three scientists for their work on “picking molecules together”

What may be the most pivotal applications of click chemistry were beginning to take shape before the term was coined. In the 1990s, Dr. Bertozzi was studying glycans, carbohydrates found on the surfaces of proteins and cells, whose functions were not fully understood. While a lot of attention has been paid to genomes and proteins, glycans have been relatively ignored, in part because they were really difficult to trace within living things.

Dr. Bertozzi began by looking for ways to attach fluorescent molecules to glycans so she could map them as they moved. But the molecules used to track the glycans cannot interfere with the rest of the cell’s functions. So the method had to be, said Dr. Bertozzi, biologically orthogonal. She had to stay away from the dungeon.

At about the same time that click chemistry emerged, Dr. Bertozzi was able to develop orthogonal bio-tracking methods, and realized she could apply the new paradigm to her work, linking fluorescent alkenes with glycans to be traced. The reaction, as it was after the contributions of Dr. Sharpless and Dr. Milldahl, required a copper catalyst, which would be toxic to living organisms. But Dr. Bertozzi came up with a different way to make the two molecules bond together, modifying the structure of the alkene to fill the role of the catalyst.

“This was a well-known concept,” said Laura Kissling, a chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of Dr. Bertozzi’s vision. “What I did was learn about this concept and apply it to an interaction that we can use in biological systems.”

Like many scientists, Dr. Kissling, friend and colleague of Dr. Bertozzi, uses orthogonal click chemistry to map the internal structures of living organisms and the movements of their cells. For example, Dr. Kissling is conducting research on tuberculosis, and she said that using this method, she was able to “visualize classes of carbohydrates that we haven’t seen before.” Other applications include tracing tumors, sequencing DNA, and studying viruses. Dr. Kissling added: “We use this chemistry all the time – as do others.”

Dr. Lorsch, whose organization funded both Dr. Bertozzi and Dr. Sharpless Research.

During the award announcement, Dr. Bertozzi, who joined remotely, acknowledged her and her fellow awardees’ work potential. “The field of click chemistry is still in its infancy,” she said, adding that there are “many new reactions to be discovered and invented,” as well as new ways to incorporate science into industries such as biotechnology. One such application is “drug delivery,” which involves “performing chemistry inside living patients to make sure drugs go to the right place and not to the wrong place.”

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