Nobel Prizes 2016: scientific discoveries explained

Featured image / thumbnail photo: Smithsonian Institution.

Our writers breakdown and describe the developments in chemistry, physics and medicine that were awarded a 2016 Nobel Prize. Each section has been provided an illustration by The Student‘s head of illustration Vivian Uhlir.

Chemistry Prize: Feringa, Sauvage, Stoddart’s nanorobots

by A.K. Brown


Three pioneering scientists, Bernard L. Feringa, Jean-Pierre Sauvage, and J. Fraser Stoddart (the latter a graduate of our very own University of Edinburgh) have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for creating the smallest machines in human history. 

Built on a nanometer scale, these microscopic mechanical miracles are held together by revolutionary means.

Most molecular bonds are covalent, atoms sharing electron pairs, this team however, has mechanically bonded molecules by interlocking them in such a way as to allow for controlled movement. In doing so they have been able to create extraordinary examples of nanotechnology including a working motor, elevator, microchip, and even a drivable car, all thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair. So aside from nano-car drag races, and very quiet motors, what else can we expect from the up-and-coming field of molecular machinery? Other researchers have already been buzzing about using the technology to create hyper efficient batteries, light activated internal drug delivery systems, and self-repairing infrastructures such as plastic pipes and wiring that can address damages without the need of human intervention.

Responding to the announcement of the award, Feringa said, “I feel a little bit like the Wright Brothers who were flying 100 years ago for the first time and people were saying why do we need a flying machine and now we have a Boeing 747 and an Airbus. The opportunities are great.”

Physics Prize: Haldane, Kosterlitz, Thouless and topology

by Sara Rigby


This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in half to David J. Thouless of the University of Washington, with the other half split between F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University. The Nobel Prize organisation state that the prize was awarded “for theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.”

Topology is a theory of mathematics that states that two objects are said to be topologically-equivalent if one can be deformed to the other by twisting, stretching, or bending. Effectively, topologically-equivalent objects have the same number of holes – in this way, a sphere and a plate are equivalent (no holes), as are a ring doughnut and a coffee cup (one hole).

Topology was the concept at the centre of the discoveries by Thouless, Haldane and Kosterlitz.

Thouless used topology to explain a phenomenon known as the quantum Hall effect. The quantum Hall effect describes how at very low temperatures and under a very strong magnetic field, the conductance of electrons (a measure of how easily current flows) in a very thin layer varies with the strength of the magnetic field, but only in whole-number steps. Thouless showed that this is related to the number of topological holes in the layer.

Thouless and Kosterlitz also advanced the field of phase transitions: a phase transition occurs when matter changes between two states with different levels of order, such as a solid with regularly placed atoms melting to form a randomly arranged liquid. Thouless and Kosterlitz discovered a phase transition which takes place on very thin layers of material, which was previously thought to be impossible.

Haldane received the prize for successfully demonstrated how topology is related to a specific behavior of magnets.

According to the Nobel Committee for Physics, the topological materials described by the Laureates “will be useful for new generations of electronics and superconductors, or in future quantum computers.”

Medicine Prize: Yoshinori Ohsumi’s work on autophagy

by Lauren Hockenhull


Yoshinori Ohsumi is 2016s Nobel Laureate in Medicine for his work on the mechanisms involved in autophagy. 

Autophagy comes from Latin, meaning self-eating, and describes the process by which cells break down parts of themselves for re-use. Ohsumi’s experiments in the early 90s discovered the genes necessary for autophagy in yeast cells. This led to the uncovering of how cells undergo self destruction in yeast and subsequently in human cells.

Autophagy in yeast occurs by the process of cellular components being encased in a vesicle, known as the autophagosome. This vesicle then fuses with a vacuole, a fluid-filled pouch in the cytoplasm, which contains enzymes to break down the contents of the vesicle. The deconstructed pieces inside the membrane can then be recycled and used by the cell for other purposes. Ohsumi proved that altering genes which code for the particular enzyme responsible for degrading vesicles would cause them not to be destroyed. He had thus identified key genes involved in autophagy.

Further work identified the rest of the genes involved, and he was also able to characterise the proteins coded by these genes. This led to the discovery of the specific cellular pathways involved in autophagy, and the pathways identified in yeast were almost identical to those in human cells.

The disturbance of autophagy in humans has links to many diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Cancer, and Type 2 Diabetes. Drugs are now being developed for these diseases that target the process of autophagy.

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