The 2012 Nobel Prizes: Cells, More Cells, and Quantum Computers


A look at the most innovative scientific discoveries of the year

Regan Meloche

The legend goes something like this: in 1888, the Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel read his own obituary in a French newspaper, which stated that “the merchant of death is dead.” Mistaking him to be dead, when in actuality it was his brother Ludvig who died, the newspaper criticized Nobel for becoming rich by “killing more people faster than ever before.”

Nobel, perhaps best known as the inventor of dynamite, was very innovative in the field of military technology, which is what earned him the unfavorable nickname of “the merchant of death.” Disheartened by the negative moniker, he decided that he wanted to be remembered in a positive light when he actually did die. As a result, Nobel specified in his final will to award his fortune as prize money for inventions and discoveries that confer the greatest benefit on humankind.

Nobel died in 1896, and the first Nobel Prizes were held in 1901. Today, the prizes continue to honour people who have made important contributions to the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, peace, and economics. Some notable winners include Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Richard Feynman. This year, additions to the prestigious list came from some very interesting scientific innovations.

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Sir John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for discovering that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become capable of affecting more than one organ or tissue.

Humans are made up of thousands of billions of cells, but in the initial stages of development and conception, human beings are only a small collection of cells. At this early stage, these cells are pluripotent, which means they have the potential to become any cell in the human body. As they mature, they become differentiated into specialized cells, such as intestinal cells, blood cells, stomach cells, etc. Until about 50 years ago, it was believed that once these cells became differentiated, there was no way to turn them into anything else. Think of all these early cells as boulders on top of a hill. As the body matures, these boulders roll down the hill where they will stay. It is very difficult to move these boulders back up to the top of the hill.

In 1962, Gurdon changed this idea by successfully genetically engineering tadpoles by taking the nuclei of mature, differentiated cells, and transplanting it into an enucleated egg. This marked the beginning of the cloning technology, and the process was later tested on a mammal, in 1997, when Scottish scientists famously cloned Dolly the sheep.

Gurdon showed that it was possible for a differentiated cell nucleus to revert to an undifferentiated state. Yamanaka took this a step further by transforming a fully intact differentiated cell back into a pluripotent cell. These are called induced pluripotent stem cells, and they have important medical applications, such as developing new therapies for genetic disorders.

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors.

On each of the trillions of cells in the human body are tiny gateways, called receptors, which allow the inside of the cell to communicate and interact with the outside of the cell. The study of these is very important because it is the mechanism by which many medications work.

Scientists have known about the existence of cell receptors for a very long time, but the challenge has always been to properly identify and imagine the receptors. The studies of Lefkowitz and Kobilka have led to an increased understanding of the most important family of receptors – the G-protein-coupled receptors. This, like the award in medicine, has the potential to open the door to many new innovations in medical treatment.

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Serge Haroche and David Wineland for groundbreaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems.

Quantum mechanics is a strange subject, which thwarts expectations. Many discoveries in this field go against conventional reasoning. Classical mechanics – physics before the twentieth century – could explain how objects moved and interacted with each other. But, by breaking these objects down into their components, like atoms and photons, the laws of classical mechanics break down as well. The answers to this problem were found in quantum physics.

Until recently, it had been nearly impossible to directly observe an object’s individual particles without altering or destroying them. Wineland and Haroche developed clever methods of doing just that.

One of the mystifying ideas behind quantum physics is that these particles can exist in multiple states at one time. In the earlier days of quantum physics, scientists would use thought experiments to convey ideas like this.

You may have heard some variation of the Schrödinger's cat experiment. Imagine a cat that is isolated inside a closed box. Inside the box is a bottle of poisonous gas that has a 50 per cent chance of exploding and killing the cat. No one can know whether the cat is dead or alive until they look inside the box. Thus, the argument goes that since no one knows whether the cat is dead or alive, then the correct statement would be that it is both dead and alive, somehow existing in both states at once. As soon as the box is opened, only then can the truth be found – essentially forcing the cat into one of the two states of existence. Similarly, subatomic particles can exist in multiple states, but as soon as one state is observed, the particle is forced into that single state.

The methods developed by Wineland and Haroche, which had their beginnings in the 70s and 80s, allow researchers and scientists to directly explore individual quantum systems without altering or destroying them.

Some major applications have been proposed to be created because of this new discovery, such as quantum computers.

Regular computers operate using a binary system of ones and zeros, corresponding to whether a tiny switch is on (1) or off (0). Quantum computers would allow the switch to have four possibilities, since it could exist as both a 0 and a 1 simultaneously. In other words, instead of 0 or 1, computers would be able to operate using 00, 01, 10, and 11. This could have a huge impact on computing power, and the way computer technology is understood.