This past week, the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden. The seven awards recipients were chosen for their respective research within the realms of condensed-matter physics, molecular machines, and autophagy. Although each of these discoveries operate at the microscopic or atomic levels, their potential has huge promise for future technologies and medical advances.
The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to David J. Thouless, Duncan Haldane, and Michael Kosterlitz for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” Topology, simply put, is “a branch of mathematics that describes properties that change” in increments or steps.
In the 1970s, Kosterlitz and Thouless discovered small spirals that form in tight pairs in very thin, low-temperature planes of matter. The phase transition, which takes place as the spirals separate and drift away from one another, is activated by an increase in temperature.
In the next decade, Thouless used topology to explain why the electrical conductivity of a thin layer between two semiconductors only changes by very specific quantities – a very rare phenomenon in physics. Haldane later demonstrated that these layers can form without being magnetized, contrary to previous thought.
Haldane also contributed to the understanding of magnetic chains of atoms “so thin they can be considered one-dimensional.” Each of these discoveries have shattered previous assumptions in physics, leading to a rich field of research in the realm of “exotic” matter.
The Nobel Prize in chemistry was granted to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Sir J. Fraser Stoddart and Bernard L. Feringa for their work with molecular machines. The future developments that might result from these discoveries are not yet clear, but prospects include miniscule cancer-hunting robots and “smart materials” that can change shape in response to imparted energy.
The first leap forward in molecular machines came from Sauvage’s development of the molecular chain in 1983. Unlike a chain held together by shared electrons, the rings that comprise this chain are held together by mechanical bonds, which allow the ring-shaped molecules to move independently of one another. In 1994, Sauvage achieved a controlled rotation of one of the rings by imparting energy to the chain.
In 1991, Stoddart and his team took the next step in the development of tiny machines by threading a molecular ring onto an axle, and this ring can slide between two charged points like a bead on an abacus. Using this technology, Stoddart was also able to create a molecular elevator, muscle, and computer chip.
Feringa introduced the final piece to the puzzle in 1999 with the first molecular motor. The motor is constructed of two molecules that can rotate in a given direction when hit with a beam of light. Using this technology, Feringa managed to design a working molecule-sized “car.”
The Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Yoshinori Ohsumi “for his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy.” Autophagy, a word derived from Greek meaning “self-eating,” is a process by which cells break down and recycle their own content. Autophagy is a vital process in the human body, and disruptions in its “machinery” have been linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, genetic diseases, and cancer, according to the statement released by the Nobel committee.
Although scientists have known about autophagy since the 1960s, Ohsumi’s work has uncovered some of the mechanisms that underlie the process. By analyzing the internal responses of mutated yeast cells to environmental changes, Ohsumi identified 15 genes that are key for the activation of autophagy. His work has given medical experts hope for future advancements in drugs that may combat diseases once thought to be incurable.
Kirsten Worden contributed to this post.