Nobel Laureates Warshel and Levitt Won Prize for Research Begun in Israel

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Arieh Warshel and Michael Levitt, the Israeli scientists who won the 2013 Nobel for chemistry years after emigrating to America, both started their award-winning research in Israel.

U.S.-Israeli scientist Arieh Warshel won the prize along with Michael Levitt and Martin Karplus on Wednesday for developing computer models that help researchers understand complex chemical interactions. 

In a telephone conversation with President Shimon Peres, who had called to congratulate him, the Israeli-born Warshel said, “I began at Kibbutz Sdeh Nahum. After the army I went to the Technion and from there to the Weizmann Institute, and after that continued in other places. During those years we began to develop computerized models to understand how proteins work. In 1975 I felt that I had succeeded in developing what I was working on, but it took me 10 years to convince others…”

Speaking by phone to a press conference in Stockholm, Warshel, who is now affiliated with the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, said he was “very happy” to be woken up in the middle of the night in Los Angeles to learn he was sharing the $1.2 million prize with his two colleagues. He briefly described his work as developing a way for computers to see the structure of a protein and in the end, to understand how the protein does what it does.

Warshel's brother told Haaretz that the researcher moved to the U.S. because he was was not tenured in Israel. 

The Pretoria-born Levitt, who has American, Israeli and British citizenship, had immigrated to Israel in the 1980s. He is currently affiliated with Stanford University, after having serving as head of the Chemical Physics Department at the Weitzmann Institute.

He said he began working on his research when he was 20, even before receiving his doctorate. “It was just me being in the right place at the right time and maybe having a few good ideas,” he said, adding, “It’s sort of nice in more general terms to see that computational science, computational biology is being recognized. It’s become a very large field and it’s always in some ways been the poor sister, or the ugly sister, to experimental biology.” 

Asked about Warshel's parting of ways with the Weitzmann Institute, Levitt said it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. "Not everything new and interesting is promoted - and that fine. It is clearly justified that work which is very, very revolutionary – is checked and reviewed. The problem is that in this case it took  many years." 

The field for which Warshel, Levitt and Karplus won the award is called molecular dynamics, and it refers to representing the three-dimensional structure of the protein on the computer. The three were the first to unequivocally achieve this, although the “founding father” of this field was Professor Shneur Lipson of the Weizmann Institute, who died in 2001. Both Warshel and Levitt worked with him, with Warshel doing his doctorate under Lipson and Levitt his post-doctoral work.

Professor Amiram Goldblum, the head of the molecular modeling and drug design unit at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute for Drug Research, told Haaretz that Warshel and Levitt indeed began their award-winning work in Israel.

“When Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel were at the Weizmann Institute, nobody believed in this field,” he said. “It was a new field. It was very difficult to get jobs in this field. It took many years for the field to develop and get the recognition it has today. Even today the field is somewhat controversial.”

Goldblum said he could understand the two scientists’ decision to pursue their research in the United States.

“Very few people engage in this field in Israel,” he said. “At the Hebrew University there are four, at Weizmann there are two or three, and at the Technion and other universities there are a few individuals. That’s 12 people across the country, while America has 500 people dealing with it. The ability to develop and make connections is greater there. The United States was able to provide the computational possibilities much more quickly with computers that did not exist elsewhere in the world.

“I wouldn’t call this a classic case of brain drain from Israel,” he added. “There are much more prominent cases. Specifically in the computational fields it’s easier [now] to find solutions in Israel, but the universities are not always open to it.”

He explained that, “Today universities have a limited number of slots, and in the natural science departments they will first accept those who’ve been published in important journals like Science, Nature and Cell, for example. Those who publish in these type of places are usually biologists. Computation is done on a computer and not in the laboratory, so that when someone writes an article on computational results, even if they’re interesting, they require laboratory experiments [to confirm them]. Sometimes laboratory experiments can be very difficult and in the end they refute the computational experiments. There is great caution exercised on the computation issue.”

A source who knows Levitt said with regard to his leaving Israel that, “he never totally left Israel and he continues his close ties and his research in Israel, but when they offered him the post of department head at Stanford, well, the Weizmann Institute really can’t compete. There’s no doubt that at Stanford the conditions are better, not just from a salary perspective but also from the perspective of scientific ties and developing one’s research.”

Levitt joked that the biggest immediate consequence of his win is that now he will need some dancing lessons before he can attend the winners’ banquet. “This is the big problem I have right now,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Warshel to congratulate him, saying, “You are doing huge things. We are proud of people who were at the Technion and the Weizmann Institute and advanced these places. I would be pleased to meet you when you come to Israel.”

Nobel laureate Michael Levitt at the Weizmann Institute in 1980. Credit: Courtesy of the Weizmann Institute

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