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Anon (1983). Nobel prize to Barbara McClintock. Nature, 305, 575.

Johann Deisenhofer, Robert Huber and Hartmut Michel received the 1988 Nobel Chemistry prize for the determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction center in photosynthetic bacterium (Rhodopseudomonas viridis). A photosynthetic reaction center is a protein-pigment complex from photosynthetic membranes that perform the primary charge of separation. This complex consists of 4 protein subunits, 4 molecules of chlorophyll, 2 molecules of pheophytin and 2 molecules of quinones. For the first time, Michel (1982) succeeded in crystallizing a membrane protein. Among these three laureates, Deisenhofer is a trained physicist, Michel - a molecular biologist and Huber – structural chemist and protein crystallographer. In an unusual pattern rarely seen among Nobel science laureates, Deisenhofer, Huber and Michel had published shared co-author papers (Deisenhofer et al., 1984, 1985a, 1985b), which attest to their collaborative effort in seeking a solution to the mystery behind the “most important chemical reaction on earth”, as touted in the press release of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in announcing the word. The mystery here is, how electrons can be transferred in biological system at a speed of billionth of a second (i.e., 10-12 sec). For this Deisenhofer and his two colleagues choose to work with a photosynthetic purple bacterium, a simpler model than that of an algae or higher plant. Combining multiple methods such as picosecond (10-15) absorption spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography and molecular biology from different disciplines proved to be valuable in solving the mystery (Lewin, 1988; Levi, 1989).

Ernest Lawrence, Nobel Prize in Physics

Derek Barton (1918-1998) had published co-authored papers, in association with chemists who would subsequently receive Nobel chemistry prize (such as Robert Woodward, Prelog and Elias Corey), on the constitution of some plant alkaloids (Barton et al., 1950) and the bitter principle of citrus, limonin (Arigoni et al., 1960). Early papers published by John Cornforth (1917-2013) were on the constituents of Australian plants (Cornforth, 1938; Cornforth and Earl, 1938; Callow, 1975; Hanson, 2014). Similarly, first independent research of Vladimir Prelog (1906-1998), starting around 1930, was on quinine, the main alkaloid from Cinchona bark (Dunitz, 1998; Arigoni et al., 2000). Subsequently, Prelog also reported on his investigations on strychnine (Prelog and Szpilfogel, 1945) and strychnine related alkaloid sempervirins from Carolina jasmin Gelsemium sempervirens (Goutarel et al., 1948).

John Howard Northrop and Wendell Stanley, Nobel Prize in Chemistry

William Giauque, Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Studies to improve plant production in the field which is unsuitable for agricultural production has been carried out in the last two decades (Kasuga et al., 1999; Nelson et al., 2007). In-depth knowledge on the ecosystems within and surrounding plants, called phytobiomes is needed for vital understanding of varied factors. Thus, interdisciplinary teams including expertise in botany may be vital for trend-setting new discoveries (Leach et al., 2017). Pioneering studies along the line of plants that can grow in a dessert or sea, plants which can be an enriched source of fuel and hydrocarbon-like materials (Nielsen et al., 1977; Calvin, 1980, 1983) may have potential to be considered for a Nobel Prize for plant science research.

The Nobel selection committee for chemistry prize consists of five regular members. To widen the range of expertise, few decades ago, adjunct members (five in 1998) with equal voting rights as the regular members were added. Currently, a member may serve a total of 9 years, in the committee. Invitations for nomination to the chemistry prize were sent to around 2,650 qualified nominators in 1998. For each year, the number of valid nominations received by the committee range between 250 and 350 (Malmstrom and Anderson, 2001). For the chemistry prize, the selection committee's decision is first passed to the respective section members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, for a vote. The results of this voting is then forwarded to the full membership (~350) for final approval at the plenary session (Feldman, 2000).

Glenn Seaborg and Edwin McMillan, Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Owen Chamberlain and Emilio Segrè, Nobel Prize in Physics

Comfort, N. C. (2001). From controlling elements to transposons: Barbara McClintock and the Nobel Prize. Trends Genetics, 17(8), 475-477.

We dedicate this contribution to the memory of Dr. Eugene Garfield (1925 – 2017), a pioneer in scientometrics and studies on Nobel prizes, for inspiration offered. Dr. Garfield died on February 26, 2017.

Donald Glaser, Nobel Prize in Physics
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Melvin Calvin, Nobel Prize in Chemistry

In summary, today’s orthodox late-Proterozoic hypothesis is that the complex dynamics of a supercontinent breakup somehow triggered . The global glaciation was reversed by runaway effects primarily related to an immense increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. During the events, oceanic life would have been delivered vast amounts of continental nutrients scoured from the rocks by glaciers, and the hot conditions would have combined to create a global explosion of photosynthetic life. A billion years of relative equilibrium between prokaryotes and eukaryotes was ultimately shattered, and oxygen levels began rising during the Cryogenian and Ediacaran periods toward modern levels. Largely sterilized oceans, which began to be oxygenated at depth for the first time, are now thought to have prepared the way for what came next: the rise of complex life.

Charles Townes, Nobel Prize in Physics

During that “,” , , and the rise of grazing and predation had eonic significance. While many critical events in life’s history were unique, one that is not is multicellularity, , and some prokaryotes have multicellular structures, some even with specialized organisms forming colonies. There are , but the primary advantage was size, which would become important in the coming eon of complex life. The rise of complex life might have happened faster than the billion years or so after the basic foundation was set (the complex cell, oxygenic photosynthesis), but geophysical and geochemical processes had their impacts. Perhaps most importantly, the oceans probably did not get oxygenated until just before complex life appeared, as they were sulfidic from 1.8 bya to 700 mya. Atmospheric oxygen is currently thought to have remained at only a few percent at most until about 850 mya, although there are recent arguments that it remained low until only about 420 mya, when large animals began to appear and animals began to colonize land. Just as the atmospheric oxygen content began to rise, then came the biggest ice age in Earth’s history, which probably played a major role in the rise of complex life.

Luis Alvarez, Nobel Prize in Physics

For this essay’s purposes, the most important ecological understanding is that the Sun provides all of earthly life’s energy, either (all except nuclear-powered electric lights driving photosynthesis in greenhouses, as that energy came from dead stars). Today’s hydrocarbon energy that powers our industrial world comes from captured sunlight. Exciting electrons with photon energy, then stripping off electrons and protons and using their electric potential to power biochemical reactions, is what makes Earth’s ecosystems possible. Too little energy, and reactions will not happen (such as ice ages, enzyme poisoning, the darkness of night, food shortages, and lack of key nutrients that support biological reactions), and too much (such as , ionizing radiation, temperatures too high for enzyme activity), and life is damaged or destroyed. The journey of life on Earth has primarily been about adapting to varying energy conditions and finding levels where life can survive. For the many hypotheses about those ancient events and what really happened, the answers are always primarily in energy terms, such as how it was obtained, how it was preserved, and how it was used. For life scientists, that is always the framework, and they devote themselves to discovering how the energy game was played.

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