With Americans Donald Cram and Charles Pedersen, Lehn received the 1987 Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing molecules that can ‘recognise’ each other and form specific complexes – and for syntheses of molecules that mimic biological processes. Many biological events rely on the ability of molecules to form highly specific complexes, including signal substances bound to receptors and antibodies bound to antigens. Chemists have dreamed of mimicking such processes and of developing synthetic analogues.
In 1967, Pedersen (1904–89), a research chemist at Du Pont, synthesised cyclic polyethers, which he named crown ethers. These compounds had remarkable properties when it came to binding selectively specific metal ions. Lehn built on the related properties of natural cyclic antibiotics as well as on the work of Pedersen, and in 1969 developed more selective cavity-containing bicyclic compounds, which he called cryptands that form cryptate inclusion complexes. Lehn and Cram (1919–2001) each developed sophisticated organic compounds. Thus, for example, Lehn produced an artificial receptor molecule for acetylcholine, which is a mediator in nerve signal transmission in humans and animals. Lehn developed these studies of receptor-substrate molecular recognition processes into the general concept of supramolecular chemistry, extending beyond molecular chemistry and concerning the chemical entities bound through intermolecular interactions.
A baker’s son, Lehn was born in Rosheim, Alsace in 1939. The eldest of four sons, he had a classical education at the Collège Freppel in Obernai but he also became interested in science. At the University of Strasbourg, he studied organic chemistry, receiving a BSc and PhD before going on in 1963 to perform post-doctoral work in the laboratory of R.B. Woodward at Harvard, where he took part in the synthesis of Vitamin B12 and took a course in quantum mechanics. Returning to Strasbourg, he was made an assistant professor. It was known that electrical impulses in the nervous system depend on ion distributions across membranes, and that natural antibiotics make membranes permeable. It is Lehn’s search for non-natural chemical entities capable of affecting such processes that eventually developed into supramolecular chemistry. In 1970 Lehn was made a full professor and in 1979 he was elected to the chair of Molecular Chemistry at the Collège de France in Paris.
Throughout his career he regularly served as a visiting professor, for instance at Harvard, the ETH in Zurich and at Cambridge, Barcelona and Frankfurt Universities. His work led to the concepts of molecular programming and is of value in polymer and nano technology. Other research included artificial photosynthesis and the storage of solar energy. In 1998, he set up a research group at the Nanotechnology Institute in Karlsruhe. He was also founding chairman of the journal “Chemistry”, a European Journal, and in 2002 created the Institut de Science et d’Ingénierie Supramoléculaires (ISIS). He has also served as president of the International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development, helping chemists in developing countries. He married Sylvie Lederer in 1965 and they have two sons.
This text and the picture of the Nobel Laureate were taken from the book: "NOBELS Nobel Laureates photographed by Peter Badge" (WILEY-VCH, 2008).
By Volker Steger
Look as much as you want, you will only see half of this sketch! It shows a cryptand, a supramolecule. There is another one on the backside of the paper, and it's not - as one might guess - an unsuccessfull attempt. This is a double-sided work of art, planned by Jean-Marie Lehn to be this way! I tried to show you both sides, but it didn't work...