Sponsored by the Nakanishi Prize Endowment
For Hung-wen Liu, just looking out at the world has been enough to spark his curiosity. "Why is this plant red? Why does something smell a particular way?" These are the sorts of questions he says have always occurred to him. "That's what brought me to work on chemistry, especially natural products."
Liu, 54, began what has become a lifelong research trajectory in 1976, when he started graduate work in the Columbia University laboratory of revered natural products chemist Koji Nakanishi, now 80 years old and still at it. And this year, Liu, or Ben to those who know him, has been recognized as a leader in his field by being named the winner of the 2007 Nakanishi Prize. Established in 1995 by Nakanishi's students and colleagues, the prize is given in odd years by the American Chemical Society and in even years by the Chemical Society of Japan.
Now, Liu is a bioorganic chemist in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas, Austin. His work in natural products chemistry, biosynthesis, and mechanistic investigations has centered on the quest to elucidate and understand nature's strategies for making biologically important structures.
"Ben's work is characterized by creativity and an ability to work on extremely difficult, unsolved problems," says Peter Schultz of Scripps Research Institute. For example, Liu has found ways to investigate the mechanisms of enzymatic transformations that involve exquisitely fleeting radical intermediates. In one particular project, Schultz notes, Liu was able to show that the medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase enzyme perpetrates two successive electron transfers. Schultz's and Liu's paths first crossed when both were postdocs in Christopher Walsh's laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1980s.
When Liu landed his first professorship in 1984 in the chemistry department of the University of Minnesota, he combined his background in natural products chemistry from his days in Nakanishi's laboratory with the enzymology and protein chemistry that he mastered in Walsh's shop. With this foundation, Liu has been taking on what to him is one of biological chemistry's most intriguing traits: to start with simple chemical building blocks, such as sugar molecules, and end up with enormous molecular diversity and complexity.
One way that Liu has been leveraging his particular expertise in the biosynthesis of unusual sugars is his work with macrolide antibiotics whose biological actions frequently depend on the type and location of sugar components. Liu has cloned genes involved in sugar biosynthesis and inserted them in bacteria, which then manufacture new antibiotic candidates. In an era when traditional antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, Liu rates the quest for novel antibiotics as one of the most important jobs a chemist can embrace.
Liu is thickly involved in the entire scientific enterprise. Under his wing as the George H. Hitchings Regents Chair in Drug Design are some two-dozen graduate students and postdocs. He is a member of many scientific societies, an organizer of conferences, a grant reviewer, and an editor or adviser for a range of scientific journals. Among the awards he has received is ACS's Horace S. Isbell Award in 1993 for his work in carbohydrate chemistry.
When asked what accomplishment makes him most proud, Liu says "the best things have yet to come." It's an optimistic sentiment that jibes with his middle name, Ben. He assumed that name in the late 1970s as a student in Taiwan so that he could have something to write on application forms to the American universities he was looking into. "I always liked Benjamin Franklin," Liu says.
The award address will be presented before the Division of Organic Chemistry.