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Koji Nakanishi (中西 香爾 Nakanishi Kōji?, born May 11, 1925) a bioorganic and natural products chemist, is Centennial Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and former Chairman of the Chemistry Department, Columbia University.
He was born in Hong Kong on May 11, 1925. He received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Nagoya University in 1947 from Prof. Fujio Egami. Following two years of post-graduate work with Prof. Louis Fieser at Harvard University, he returned to Nagoya University where he completed his Ph.D. in 1954 with Prof. Yoshimasa Hirata. He took a position as Assistant Professor at Nagoya, and then Professor of Chemistry at Tokyo Kyoiku University. In 1963 he moved to Tohoku University in Sendai and remained there until 1969 when he joined the faculty of Columbia University. In 1980 he became Centennial Professor of Chemistry. He was Chairman of the Chemistry Department, 1987-90.
He was a founding member and one of the six Directors of Research at the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, the first Director of the nonprofit Suntory Institute for Bioorganic Research (Sunbor), Osaka, and he assisted the Brazilian government to set up a center of excellence in the Amazons, the Institute of Medicinal and Ecological Chemistry with its headquarters in São Paulo. In April 2001 he was asked to start a chemistry unit within Biosphere 2, Arizona, operated by Columbia University.
His research encompasses isolation, structural and bioorganic studies of bioactive compounds, retinal proteins, interaction between ligands and neuroreceptors, development of various spectroscopic methods, especially circular dichroic spectroscopy. He has published around 750 papers, and has authored, co-authored, or edited nine books on spectroscopy and natural products.
Koji Nakanishi has determined the structures of over 200 biologically active animal and plant natural products, many of which are endogenous and/or the first member of a new class. These include ginkgolides from the ancient ginkgo tree, first insect molting hormones from plants, new nucleic acid bases, insect antifeedants, antibiotics, first meiosis inducing substance from starfish, crustacean molt inhibitors, shark repellents from fish, tunicate blood pigments, brevetoxins from red-tide dinoflagellates, philanthotoxin (glutamate and nicotinic acetylcholine receptor antagonist) from a wasp, and the human eye pigment involved in macular degeneration.
His studies with retinal analogs and retinal proteins have made seminal contributions in understanding the structural and mechanistic basis of animal vision and phototaxis. In 2000 his research group succeeded in clarifying relative movements of the retinal and the opsin receptor throughout the visual transduction process; this is the first such study performed with G protein coupled receptors (GPCR) and will contribute in clarifying the mode of action of numerous other GPCRs. It also established the structure and biosynthesis of the fluorescent pigment A2E that leads to the incurable eye disease age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and its involvement in apoptosis.
His spectroscopic contributions include the first applications of the NMR nuclear Overhauser effect in structure determination during the ginkgolide studies (1967), and in particular development of the exciton coupled circular dichroic method (1969), a non-empirical sub-microgram scale technique for determining various aspects of molecular chirality of organic molecules in solution, an extremely versatile technique applicable to compounds ranging from small molecules to various types of ligand / receptor complexes.
As of December 2002, approximately 425 students and postdoctoral fellows have spent a period of time in his group, i.e., 95 in Japan and 330 at Columbia University. About 140 of his former colleagues hold academic positions at universities.
He has received awards from U.S.A., Japan, Bulgaria, China, the Czech Republic, Holland, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Sweden (the Scheele Award, 1992), Switzerland, Taiwan and U.K. In an unprecedented international alliance, the Nakanishi Prize of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Chemical Society of Japan (CSJ) was established in 1996 and is awarded in alternate years in Japan and the U.S. to recognize achievements in chemical and spectroscopic methods to the study of biological phenomena; it is the only CSJ prize with an individual's name. More recently in 1999, he was awarded one of Japan's highest honors, "Person of Cultural Merit"  for his breakthrough research in the organic chemistry of natural products.
His many honors include the prestigious King Faisal International Prize in Science, the Welch Award, the Arthur C. Cope Award, the Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy, the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences, and the Japan Academy Prize, as well as honorary doctorates from Williams College, Georgetown University and the University of Uppsala.
When Koji Nakanishi appears at a reception where he is scheduled to receive an award or to present a scientific paper, the audience could most generally expect an added spectacular surprise treat, as Koji is a famous and talented magician.
Koji Nakanishi has two children, Keiko and Jun, and three grandchildren, Aya, Kenji, and Pico. Pico is currently a student at Columbia University.
- Biographical snapshots: Koji Nakanishi, Journal of Chemical Education web site.