My professor the Nobelist

The announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has special relevance for the Université de Montréal community. The prize is shared this year by Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel of the United States for “laying the foundation for the computer models used to understand and predict chemical processes”. Among their many contributions were developing computer models to explain the exquisite and dynamic atomic details of chemical reactions performed by proteins in living cells.  These include, to give just three examples out of the many, how simple nutrients are broken down by enzymes to how channels in the cell membrane can selectively pump salt and drug molecules in and out of the cell, and how drugs can recognize and change their receptors.


I am a professor at the university's Department of Biochemistry, and I am in fact a protégé of Martin Karplus. Following my work with him, I have developed conceptual and experimental tools to build quantitative models of how cells transduce signals from the environment into cellular responses. Furthermore, I'm not the only one: Benoit Roux, now at the University of Chicago, was also a student of Dr. Karplus. Dr. Roux started his career here in the Department of Chemistry and was associated to the Groupe de recherche en transport membranaire (GRTM) that more recently evolved into the Groupe d'etude des proteins membranaires (GÉPROM). Starting from his work at Harvard with Karplus, Dr. Roux pioneered the most sophisticated models of ion transport in cells, explaining how channel proteins maintain homeostasis of transmembrane ion concentrations, critical to maintaining, for instance, the ability of neurons to perform electrical signaling and of kidney cells to maintain the balance of salt concentrations in the blood.

The impact of Martin Karplus' work on every aspect of chemistry and biology has been enormous.  When he started in the 1970's to use computer models in an attempt to predict the behaviors of complicated molecules like proteins, containing thousands of atoms, it was an incredibly audacious goal. Today, chemists and biochemists almost routinely use the methods he and the other Nobel Laureates developed to solve a large number of problems, from designing drugs to figuring out how amyloid fibrils form in Alzheimer's disease. As students, we learned many things from Martin. He taught us to deeply understand experimental data and anything we modeled on the computer had to fit what experiments tell us. We also learned that experiments could only go so far to explaining how chemical processes happen.  Careful interpretation of computer models can reveal how these process may happen in exquisite detail.

I would like to add on a personal note that Martin is as remarkable and polyvalent in his outside interests as he is as a scientist.  A Francophile, Martin has for many years divided his time between Harvard and the University of Strasbourg. Even when we were students at Harvard, Martin spent his summers at his chalet in France and, we soon learned, was such an accomplished chef that he worked at the restaurant of a local hotel. Recently, we also learned that he is an accomplished amateur photographer. Last summer an exhibition of his work entitled “La Couleur des Années 1950” was held at the Bibliotheque Nationale Site Mitterand in Paris. So the most important lesson we learned from Martin, one every student should learn, is to always strive to be remarkable in every aspect of your life.

Stephen Michnick
Professor, Department of Biochemistry