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Stanford's Michael Levitt shares Nobel Prize in chemistry

Second Nobel this week for School of Medicine faculty

Stanford University structural biologist Michael Levitt today won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for "the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems."

Levitt, a professor at the School of Medicine, works on theoretical, computer-aided analysis of protein, DNA and RNA molecules responsible for life at its most fundamental level. Delineating the precise molecular structure of biological molecules is a first step in understanding how they work and in designing drugs to alter their function.

He shares the $1.2 million prize with Martin Karplus of the University of Strasbourg in France and Harvard University and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California.

Levitt's prize today was the second Nobel for Stanford this week. On Monday, Thomas Sudhof, professor of molecular and cellular physiology in the School of Medicine, learned he will share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

"Like everyone else, one is surprised," Levitt told the Stanford News Service today about receiving the early morning call from Stockholm. "Now I just hope to get through the day and make sure that, in the end, my life doesn't change very much. Because I really have a wonderful life.

"My phone never rings," he added. "Everyone sends me texts and emails. So when the phone first rang I was sure it was a wrong number. When it rang a second time I picked it up. I immediately heard a Swedish accent and got very excited. It was like having five double espressos."

The South African-born Levitt, who holds U.S., British and Israeli citizenship, joined Stanford's Department of Structural Biology in 1987.

He was a pioneer in computational structural biology, which helped predict molecular structures, compute structural changes, refine experimental structure, model enzyme catalysis and classify protein structures.

"Molecules work because of their structure," he said. "And cells worked because of where things are placed inside. The only way to interfere is to first learn their three-dimensional structure. If you wanted to change a city but had no idea of where the buildings are, you would have no idea where to start."

He credits his wife, Rina, an artist, for supporting him.

"I am a very passionate scientist, but passionate scientists often make very bad husbands," he said. The couple has three sons and three grandchildren.

He also credits the computer industry for much of the work he's been able to accomplish.

"Computers and biology go together," he said. "Biology is very complicated and computers are such wonderful, powerful tools. And they just keep getting more and more powerful."

Upon learning the news this morning, he called his 98-year-old mother Gertrude in London.

"She is very happy," he said. "I am hoping she can come to Stockholm with me."

— Palo Alto Weekly staff

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