Annually, the scientific community would anticipate the announcement of the newest recipients of the Nobel Prize. First awarded in 1901, the award was established as part of the will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and businessman, and recognized people who made outstanding contributions to the fields of Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, Economics, Literature, and the Promotion of Peace—those who have given “the greatest benefit to humankind,” in the words of Nobel.
With the end of the decade nearing, The LaSallian looks back at the Nobel Prize 2019 awardees, whose outstanding works over the years contributed to expanding our understanding of the cosmos, knowing groundbreaking discoveries that can help fight cancer, and powering modern society.
The oxygen switch
Three scientists in the Physiology or Medicine category were recognized for their work on a fundamental aspect of cell functions: oxygen sensing and adaptability. The three laureates were Dr. Gregg L. Semenza, a professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, Director of Clinical Research at the Francis Crick Institute; and Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr. of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
In 1991, while studying erythropoietin (EPO)—a hormone released when oxygen levels are low—Semenza and his research group discovered hypoxia-inducible factor 1—a protein that affects the body’s response to oxygen deficiency or hypoxia.
The EPO gene was previously thought to have only been present in kidney cells. Ratcliffe and Semenza’s teams later found that the gene was in fact present in all body tissues, which means that all cells have the ability to sense whether oxygen levels are depleting.
On the other hand, Kaelin discovered that a gene related to a hereditary condition known as von Hippel-Lindau disease, which manifests as tumors forming in multiple body organs, is involved with how cells respond to hypoxia.
The three scientists and their teams eventually worked jointly and were able to piece together how cells are able to detect insufficient oxygen levels and how they adapt to hypoxia.
The studies are applicable in developing treatments for numerous diseases, such as anemia and cancer. “A cancer cell has its own blood supply. If the tumor [becomes] bigger, there’s an increase in blood supply through this oxygen-sensing mechanism,” explains Dr. Michael Ples, an associate professor of DLSU’s Biology Department. Put simply, cancer cells that develop into tumors overtake the body’s oxygen supply, depriving healthy cells of oxygen.
Ples furthers that with this newfound knowledge on oxygen sensing, it is possible to develop a drug that could hinder cancer cells’ dependence on the oxygen sensing process. The discovery may also be applicable in wound repair and blood vessel formation, he adds.
Split between two important achievements, the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics was given to James Peebles for his numerous contributions to the field of Physical Cosmology, and to the team of Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, who were recognized for their discovery of 51 Pegasi b—an exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star.
With groundbreaking discoveries in the past 50 years, Peebles has become the architect of our understanding of the Universe’s history. “He has written books which are our standard texts in theoretical Physics for studying Cosmology. A person who can write a book about Cosmology must be an authority in [it],” elaborates Dr. Emmanuel Rodulfo, a full-time professor of the Physics Department whose works explore cosmic surroundings, such as the development of theories on cosmic microwave background and dark matter, a form of matter that does not absorb, reflect, or emit light.
Meanwhile, Swiss astronomers Mayor and Queloz announced in October of 1995 that they were able to spot 51 Pegasi b, an exoplanet the size of Jupiter, orbiting a star similar to our Sun. Since then, 4,000 of these strange worlds with various sizes and orbits were discovered.
The discovery by these Swiss scientists also challenged our preconceived notions of what solar systems should look like. “Our solar system has rocky planets close to our Sun and gaseous giants in the external regions. That’s our picture of a solar system,” Rodulfo explains. When 51 Pegasi b was detected, its discoverers found that the gas giant was extremely close to its star—even closer than Mercury is to our Sun.
“It’s a surprise that a gaseous giant is so close to its star; we don’t have that here in [our] solar system. That’s what changed our perspective about other solar systems,” Rodulfo says.
Their discoveries bring light to the strangeness of the cosmos. The vastness of the Universe uncovered by Peebles and the discovery of extraterrestrial worlds of different nature initiated by Mayor and Queloz have changed our understanding not only of the Universe but also of our place in it. Rodulfo encapsulates the impact of these physicists into one word: “Existential.”
Powering the modern world
Meanwhile, the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three people—John B. Goodenough, Michael Stanley Whittingham, and Akira Yoshino. Their development of lithium-ion batteries has revolutionized the modern world from mobile phones to electric cars to renewable energy. “The impact of the research is so enormous that it enabled societal change,” Dr. Drexel Camacho, a full professor from DLSU’s Chemistry Department, shares in an online interview with The LaSallian.
The strength of lithium-ion batteries lies in its handheld size and its ability to be recharged repeatedly without significant loss in performance. The utility of these batteries snowballed into the mass production of recognizable technologies in our daily life, such as phones, laptops, and electric cars.
Camacho explains the necessity of using lithium, “The use of the small and light lithium atom as the main element in batteries made it possible to pack a lot of lithium into a small space, allowing for miniaturization of batteries.” Furthermore, lithium easily gives up electrons, making it effective in generating power since electricity is produced by electrons flowing from one end to another.
Before lithium, bulky toxic lead batteries were used. However, the need for alternative energy sources arose during the oil crisis of the 1970s. Whittingham worked on finding methods that would not rely on fossil fuels. In his original design of the lithium-ion battery, metallic lithium was used on one end and titanium disulfide on the other. Titanium sulfide was used because it has spaces that could house the flowing lithium electrons. This battery design, however, was too unstable and explosive.
Goodenough’s subsequent design replaced titanium disulfide with cobalt oxide, generating more power than Whittingham’s battery. Following up on Goodenough’s breakthrough, Yoshino created the first viable lithium-ion battery in 1985, utilizing cheap petroleum coke infused with lithium. Through the work of these three scientists, lithium-ion batteries became the cornerstone of the Information Age. However, Camacho calls for continuous research, “We must continue to develop further a better and long lasting version, since lithium, although not rare, is a finite resource material.”
As scientists uncover more details about the workings of the Universe—from the smallest biological structures to the furthest points in the galaxy—professionals and enthusiasts alike continue to anticipate new discoveries in the future.
The Nobel Prize is a means of bringing these breakthroughs into the public sphere where the scientists that pioneered them will be deservedly recognized. This year’s awardees brought paradigm-shifting changes to our understanding of life and the world, which is something that cannot be halted.