George Whitesides, Ph.D.

Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard UniversityGeorge Whitesides’s website

SCOL Project: Studies in the Chemistry of Elementary Processes in Peribiotic Earth

This research is focused on demonstrating the “self-assembly” (that is, spontaneous evolution and self-organization) of groups of reactions into networks that display complex properties. Metabolism is an example of such a complex network, and metabolism is made up of sub-networks of groups of five to 20 (or more) reactions that behave cooperatively. We are focusing on reactions that make amide bonds (the backbone of proteins) from organic carboxylic acids and amines. We have demonstrated chemistry that is plausibly compatible with reactions that might have occurred on peribiotic earth (the time between the development of complicated chemistry and the emergence of the first “living” cells). This type of chemistry is of a sort that persists in some pockets of metabolism (e.g., making polypeptides and fatty acids). We study not the products of reaction, but the kinetics (that is, the rates at which they occur). In our systems, the development of complex kinetic behaviors—oscillations—provides a demonstration of the spontaneous emergence of complexity and allows us to examine the relation between the structure of a network and its behavior. Our current focus is on the development of this system to understand what “Darwinian selection” might have meant in complex mixtures of molecules and also to explore what “robustness” (here, the ability of a network to withstand perturbations in its environment) might have meant in the peribiotic environment. We are also beginning to focus on how molecular catalysts (the precursors of enzymes) might have emerged from prebiotic mixtures of molecules.

George M. Whitesides has worked in an unusually broad range of areas, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, organometallic chemistry, applied enzymology, self-assembly, soft lithography, microfluidics, organic surface science, and nanotechnology. His current research interests include physical and organic chemistry, materials science, biophysics, complexity and simplicity, tools for biology, technology for developing economies, and the origin of life. His laboratory at Harvard University is noted for its diversity, creativity and productivity, and for the quality of the students it produces.

He received an A.B. degree from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology under John D. Roberts. He was a member of the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1963 to 1982. He joined the Department of Chemistry at Harvard in 1982 and served as department chairman from 1986 to 1989. From 1982 to 2004, Whitesides was the Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry at Harvard and is currently the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor.

Whitesides is active in numerous public service roles. He has served on advisory committees for the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Defense. He has also served on the National Research Council in various capacities since 1984, including roles with the Committee on Science and Technology for Counterterrorism, the Board on Science Technology and Economic Policy, the “Gathering Storm” Committee and the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. He has served on the boards of Dexter, Rohm and Haas, Hughes Research Laboratory, Nano Terra, and Theravance Biopharma, among other companies, and on the editorial boards for Angewandte Chemie, Soft Robotics, Small, and Lab on a Chip. Whitesides is the author of over 1,200 scientific articles and is listed as an inventor on more than 100 patents.

He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. He is a foreign associate of the Royal Society of Chemistry (U.K.), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Indian National Academy of Science and the French Academy of Sciences. He is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Institute of Physics, and the American Chemical Society. He has received the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1998, the Kyoto Prize in Materials Science and Engineering in 2003, the Welch Award in Chemistry in 2005, the Dan David Prize in Future Science in 2005, the American Chemical Society Priestley Medal in 2007, the Prince of Asturias Award in Science and Technology in 2008, the Dreyfus Prize in Chemistry in 2009, the Othmer Gold Medal (Chemical Heritage Foundation) in 2010, the King Faisal Prize in 2011, the Gold Medal (Industrial Research Institute) in 2013 and the Czochralski Award (European Materials Research Society) in 2014.

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