Two American Israelis and US Jew share Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Native Arieh Warshel and immigrant Michael Levitt win joint award with Austrian-born Martin Karplus for computer simulation work.

Nobel Prize Chemistry winners (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nobel Prize Chemistry winners
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Two Israeli professors who currently live in the US won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Wednesday, sharing the award with an Austrian-American Jewish professor.
Prof. Arieh Warshel, who was born in Israel and now lives in California, and Prof. Michael Levitt, a South African native who made aliya and now splits his time between the US and Israel, are sharing the prize – and the $1.25 million – with Prof. Martin Karplus, an Austrian native who fled to the US before the Holocaust.
Warshel and Levitt are Israel’s 11th and 12th Nobel Prize laureates.
Karplus’s daughter Rebecca, a family doctor who lives in Jerusalem, said on Wednesday evening that she heard of her father’s winning the Nobel prize on her car radio.
The three men were cited for their “development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”
President Shimon Peres called and congratulated Warshel after the announcement was made, jokingly asking: “How does it feel for a man from the kibbutz to win a Nobel Prize?” Peres continued: “I want to congratulate you on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people and every person who hopes to overcome sickness and suffering because of your work. I am sure that your breakthrough will lead to advances in medicine and further scientific breakthroughs.”
He asked Warshel to convey his congratulations to Levitt and Karplus, who worked with him and are sharing the prize.
Warshel, speaking from his home in the the US, told Peres about the years of research that led to the breakthrough and thanked the president for his warm words.
“I was born on Kibbutz Sde Nahum. After my military service, I studied at the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology [in Haifa] and then the Weizmann Institute of Science [in Rehovot],” he said. “After that we began to build unique models to better understand biological systems. The discovery itself was in 1975, but it took many years to prove.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also called Warshel to congratulate him.
“Mazal tov,” he wished the the Israeli-born Warshel, who is a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “You are doing great things. It is exceptionally impressive, and we are proud of you, proud of people who were at the Technion and the Weizmann Institute and advanced those places. I will be happy to meet you when you come to Israel.”
Warshel told Netanyahu that the research that earned him the prize was conducted in his native country.
Levitt, a British, Israeli and American citizen, lauded Israel’s tradition of winning Nobel prizes.
“Israel has traditionally had a very strong focus on education,” Levitt told The Jerusalem Post, on Wednesday, saying he is “very pleased” at its tradition of producing Nobel laureates.
“This is wonderful,” he said, “I think it’s important to continue that tradition, and I imagine it will.”
The Weizmann Institute, where Levitt is a visiting professor and where Warshel graduated from decades ago, issued a statement saying: “We extend our hearty congratulations to the new winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2013. Two of the three new laureates have strong ties to the Weizmann Institute, and their work on the use of computers to map chemical reactions of large molecules such as enzymes on the atomic scale was first developed at the Weizmann Institute.
“They began their scientific collaboration in the 1960s at Weizmann, where Warshel was a doctoral student,” the statement continued. “The two of them worked with the late Prof. Shneior Lifson in the chemical physics department.
Together, they developed a computer program that ran on the institute’s Golem computer – a powerful device in those days – to model molecules. This program had special relevance for large biological molecules.”
After completing his doctorate, Warshel went to work with Karplus at Harvard University, where they modeled retinal, the visual pigment, succeeding for the first time to combine classical modeling of the molecule with the quantum physics that could give them a glimpse into how it works.
Warshel and Levitt reunited at the Weizmann Institute in 1972. According to the Nobel website, “Levitt and Warshel aimed high.” They developed a computer program that was “revolutionary because it could be used for any kind of molecule.”
They also found a way to make the program more efficient, by focusing on the more interesting parts of the molecule. They went on to make seminal contributions to the field of computational biology by performing simulations to study how proteins work.
Levitt was born 1947 in Pretoria, South Africa. He received his PhD in 1971 from the University of Cambridge and was a member of the Weizmann faculty in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Today, he is a professor in cancer research at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California.
Karplus, born in 1930, has a BA from Harvard University and a PhD from the California Institute of Technology.
He is the Theodore William Richards Emeritus professor of chemistry at Harvard University.
The double Israeli win offered some consolation here after Hebrew University professors Howard Cedar and Aharon Razin did not win the Nobel Prize for Medicine on Monday or the Chemistry Prize on Wednesday.
Cedar and Razin – who had made fundamental discoveries about DNA methylation and gene expression related to cancer – had last week been tipped as “possible winners” by Thomson Reuters.
Michael Wilner in Washington and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.