Here Are The Front Runners To Win A Science Nobel Prize This Year

Thomson Reuters, which has been predicting the Nobel Winners for more than 10 years, released its annual list of potential winners Wednesday.

The media outlet has successfully predicted 27 wins using data from the Web Of Science website, including how many times a given set of scientific literature has been cited — the more times a paper is cited, the more important and influential the work.

That doesn’t mean these are the only contestants — there are other dark horse candidates that may not have made this list.

The Nobel prizes will be announced Oct. 7-14.

CHEMISTRY: A. Paul Alivisatos, Chad A. Mirkin, and Nadrian 'Ned' C. Seeman for their contributions to the field of DNA Nanotechnology. Together, they've worked to design tiny objects made with DNA with applications in fields like nano-medicine.

A Paul Alivisatos is the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the
University of California, Berkeley.
Chad A. Mirkin is a professor at Northwestern University.
Nadrian C. Seeman is at New York University.

DNA is the molecule that makes up your genome. But it can also be manipulated to create tiny physical structures. That's where nanotechnology comes in. Tiny robots made of DNA can be used to move and control other tiny objects.

Supposedly Seeman was inspired to develop the field in the fall of 1980, while at a pub, inspired by the M. C. Escher woodcut 'Depth.' He envisioned using DNA to make a lattice-like structure that could support other larger molecules so that scientists could work with them. He didn't achieve that goal until 2009.

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Why use DNA instead of another molecule? Strands of DNA fit together in a very specific way, since individual 'base pairs' -- the A, T, G, and C -- can only bind to each other.

When they bind, these strands form strong, rigid structures.

Because we understand how these base pairs fit together, we can design DNA structures that will self-assemble based on these rules.

These DNA objects can even be changed after they are created, turning them into molecular robots.

CHEMISTRY: Bruce N. Ames for the invention of a test to determine how likely a compound is to create mutations, called the Ames test.

Bruce N Ames is affiliated with Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute and the University of California, Berkeley.

The Ames test easily and cheaply determines how 'mutagenic' a compound is. These compounds could be anything from a new drug or a food additive, to a cleaning product or hair dye. If a compound is mutagenic, it's more likely to cause cancer, because a buildup of mutations is what makes cells form tumors.

The test uses the salmonella bacteria, which is much easier to manipulate and grow in the lab than animals are. The bacteria rely on a compound called histidine to thrive, because they have a mutated gene. In the lab, the bacteria are grown in the compound to be tested without histidine. If the bacteria are able to mutate back into their natural state and thrive without histidine, the compound they were exposed to is likely to be mutagenic, and have pushed the bacteria to make more mutations. Those mutations let it survive without histidine.

His findings using this test even led to some chemicals being withdrawn from commercial products.

Eventually, using his findings that man-made compounds aren't necessarily any worse than 'natural' chemicals to argue against pesticide bans, led to a split with environmentalist groups.

CHEMISTRY: M.G. Finn, Valery V. Fokin, and K. Barry Sharpless for the development of a type of reaction that quickly and reliably joins small units together to form desired substances.

M.G. Finn is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Valery V. Fokin and K. Barry Sharpless are researchers at The Scripps Research Institute.

The quick creation of substances by joining together smaller units is called 'modular click chemistry.' These types of reactions are meant to mimic how proteins and other compounds are put together in cells -- at body temperature and normal pH -- without making any toxic byproducts.

Often these natural reactions use enzymes, very specific proteins that fit like a lock and key onto the compounds they are changing. In these reactions there is only one favoured outcome.

Click chemistry is an overarching idea or approach -- one that could be used in countless applications from drug discovery and nanotechnology to applications in the lab when doing other research.

The idea was described by Sharpless in 2001. If selected, this would be Sharpless' second Nobel Prize -- he won the Chemistry prize in 2001. The Scripps institute owns a cadre of patents on the idea.

PHYSICS: François Englert and Peter W. Higgs for their prediction of the God Particle, aka the 'Higgs' boson, the existence of which was confirmed this year.

François Englert of the Université Libre de Bruxelles.
Peter W. Higgs of the University of Edinburgh.

In physics, the big news of the year, or possibly even the decade, has been the Large Hadron Collider's confirmation of the Brout-Englert-Higgs boson (also known as the Higgs boson or the God Particle).

With the work of other physicists, Englert and Higgs described what's called the 'Higgs mechanism,' which is a building stone of the electroweak theory of elementary particles and laid the foundation of a unified view of the basic laws of nature. It predicted a particle called a boson.

The boson particle was confirmed on March 14 with increasingly strong data of its existence from the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research known as CERN.

PHYSICS: Hideo Hosono for his discovery of an iron-based superconductor, the first of its kind.

Hideo Hosono, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Supercondutors are special materials that have zero electrical resistance and give off magnetic fields when cooled to extremely low temperatures. They are extraordinarily strong electromagnets. They are important in machines like MRIs and particle accelerators.

Iron is traditionally not thought to be a superconductor, but in 2008 Hosono discovered an iron-based superconductor, the first of its kind. The find created a resurgence of interest in superconductor research.

The iron-based superconductors have special properties that are favourable in certain applications. They can withstand 'high' heats, and their existence may lead to a new theory of how superconductors work.

Five Nobel prizes have already been awarded for work in superconductivity.

PHYSICS: Geoffrey W. Marcy, Michael Mayor, and Didier Queloz for discovering the first planets around sun-like stars outside of our solar system.

Geoffrey W. Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley.
Michael Mayor of the University of Geneva.
Didier Queloz of the University of Cambridge.

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By now we have all heard news of 'extrasolar planets' -- planets that scientists have found in other solar systems, hundreds of light years away from our own little Earth. But back in 1995 no extrasolar planets had been discovered circling stars like our sun. That's when Mayor and Queloz published the existence of 51 Pegasi b. Their find was confirmed a week after their paper was published by Marcy and Paul Butler.

Queloz had actually been doing the research as an exercise to hone his skill when he found the planet. It's a very fast-moving 'hot Jupiter' that challenges our theories about how solar systems form.

PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE: Adrian P. Bird, Howard Cedar, and Aharon Razin for their discoveries of how genes are turned on and of by modifications to our DNA.

Adrian P. Bird of the University of Edinburgh.
Howard Cedar and Aharon Razin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Not every gene in our genome is used in each cell of our body. Each of our cells gets its special properties from the genes that it expresses, but we didn't know how these genes were turned on and off until the discoveries of Bird, Cedar, and Razin in the 1970s.

Bird discovered DNA methylation, a natural change that turns off genes. Problems with methylation could lead to disease. These original findings were the basis of the field of 'epigenetics' -- the ways in which changes to the structure of our genes can change what they do and when, which has implications in the treatment and cure of diseases.

This video for the 2011 Gairdner winners explains their research:

PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE: Daniel J. Klionsky, Noboru Mizushima, and Yoshinori Ohsumi
 for describing how cells break down and reabsorb their worn-out machinery. Malfunctions in this process can lead to disease.

Daniel J. Klionsky of University of Michigan.
Noboru Mizushima of the University of Tokyo.
Yoshinori Ohsumi
 of the Tokyo Institute of Technology

Autophagy literally translates to 'self-eating' and that's exactly what cells do when they are either starving or their parts get worn out. They take the basic building blocks of these components -- proteins, carbohydrates, and fats -- and break them down to their basic parts to be reused again.

In 1992 Ohsumi was the first to observe how these cell parts were brought into the cell's garbage dump, the lysosome. Since then all of these labs have been working to identify the proteins that are involved in this process.

The cell is a busy place, so understanding how it keeps track of these processes can lead to better treatment for disease when they go wrong. Autophagy seems to play a role in cancer and diseases like Alzheimer's disease, which involves the buildup of a toxic protein.

PHYSIOLOGY OR MEDICINE: Dennis J. Slamon for discovering a breast cancer gene called HER2/neu and the treatment to reverse its tumour-growing effects.

Dennis J. Slamon of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Cancer is caused by mutations in a large number of genes, many of which work together to give a cancer cell the characteristics that make it form tumors and spread.

One of the genes involved in some breast cancers was discovered by Dennis Slamon. The gene, called HER2/neu, is expressed at higher levels in 20-30% of breast cancers. The protein made by the gene produces hormone receptors on the outside of the cancer cells, which makes the cells divide faster than normal, which results in a tumour.

Because of the discovery of the gene, the drug Herceptin was created to counter the effects of elevated HER2/neu. It blocks the receptor, stopping the 'grow more' signal from getting into the cell, and slowing tumour growth.

Slamon's life and research was the template for the plot of the film 'Living Proof' (2008), starring Harry Connick, Jr.

See the future Nobelists of the Google Science Fair.

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