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K. Barry Sharpless

K. Barry Sharpless

Chemistry, stereoselective reactions, click chemistry

W. M. Keck Professor of Chemistry, The Scripps Research Institute, California

Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2001 (shared with William S. Knowles and Ryoji Noyori) “for his work on chirally catalysed oxidation reactions”


Sharpless was born in Philadelphia in 1941. He graduated from Friends’ Central School in 1959. He said that, while he had an overwhelming passion for fishing, school he merely enjoyed and he never planned to be a scientist. Passion, he claims, not planning, is the engine driving all his thoughts and actions. He has said that the good fortune of his youth was that other people made such very good plans and choices for him. He continued his studies at Dartmouth College (1963) and received his PhD from Stanford University in 1968. He continued post-doctoral work at Stanford University and Harvard University. He holds honorary degree from the Technical University of Munich.

Sharpless has been a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. He currently holds the W.M. Keck professorship in chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute.

Currently, he spends much of his time promoting click chemistry, a set of highly selective, exothermic reactions which occur under mild conditions, the most successful variant of which is the azide alkyne Huisgen cycloaddition to form 1,2,3-triazoles.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize he said: “Chemists usually write about their chemical careers in terms of the different areas and the discrete projects in those areas on which they have worked. Essentially all my chemical investigations, however, are in only one area, and I tend to view my research not with respect to projects, but with respect to where I’ve been driven by two passions which I acquired in graduate school: I am passionate about the Periodic Table (and selenium, titanium and osmium are absolutely thrilling), and I am passionate about catalysis. What the ocean was to the child, the Periodic Table is to the chemist; new catalytic reactivity is, of course, my personal coelacanth.”

His research

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2001 was divided, one half jointly to William S. Knowles and Ryoji Noyori “for their work on chirally catalysed hydrogenation reactions” and the other half to K. Barry Sharpless “for his work on chirally catalysed oxidation reactions”. Sharpless is responsible for some of the most significant breakthroughs in modern chemistry.

Barry Sharpless developed stereoselective oxidation reactions, and showed that the formation of an inhibitor with femtomolar potency can be catalyzed by the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, beginning with an azide and an alkyne. He discovered several chemical reactions which have transformed asymmetric synthesis from science fiction to the relatively routine, including aminohydroxylation, dihydroxylation, and Sharpless asymmetric epoxidation. He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2001, for his part in the unraveling of chiral catalysts – asymmetrically engineered molecules that do not structurally mirror themselves, a breakthrough that has enabled researchers to selectively control chemical reactions.

Before his research, the safety of medicinal molecules was difficult and slow to measure. Sharpless discovered chemical reactions that quicken the process and create more effective molecules. This innovation drove the mass production of antibiotics, medicine, and painkillers during the first half of the 2000s.



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