Koji Nakanishi

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Koji Nakanishi
中西 香爾
Koji Nakanishi.jpg
K.Nakanishi, 1967
Born(1925-05-11)11 May 1925
Died28 March 2019(2019-03-28) (aged 93)
Alma materNagoya University
AwardsErnest Guenther Award (1978)
Japan Academy Prize (1990)
Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy (1990)
Arthur C. Cope Award (1990)
Scheele Award (1992)
Welch Award (1996)
Person of Cultural Merit (1999)
King Faisal International Prize (2003)
Order of Culture (2007)
Scientific career
InstitutionsTokyo University of Education
Tohoku University
Columbia University
Doctoral advisorYoshimasa Hirata
Notable studentsSatoshi Ōmura

Koji Nakanishi (中西 香爾, Nakanishi Kōji, May 11, 1925 – March 28, 2019) was a Japanese chemist who studied bioorganic chemistry and natural products. He served as Centennial Professor of Chemistry and chairman of the Chemistry Department at Columbia University.

Early life[edit]

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 PhD. in 1954 with Yoshimasa Hirata.


He took a position as assistant professor at Nagoya, and then professor of chemistry at Tokyo University of Education (now the University of Tsukuba). 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 from 1987 to 1990.[2]

He was a founding member and one of the six directors of research at the International Centre 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 encompassed 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 authored, co-authored, or edited nine books on spectroscopy and natural products.

Koji Nakanishi 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.[citation needed]

His studies with retinal analogs and retinal proteins 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 was the first such study performed with G protein coupled receptors (GPCR) and contributed 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 included 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 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 received awards from the U.S.A., Japan, Bulgaria, China, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Sweden (the Scheele Award, 1992), Switzerland, Taiwan and the 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 1995 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;[3] it is the only CSJ prize with an individual's name. In 1999, he was awarded one of Japan's highest honors, "Person of Cultural Merit" [4] 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 Paul Karrer Gold Medal, the Imperial Prize of the Japan Academy, the National Academy of Sciences Award in Chemical Sciences, the Tetrahedron Prize (2004) and the Japan Academy Prize, as well as honorary doctorates from Williams College, Georgetown University and the University of Uppsala.


  • A Wandering Natural Products Chemist (1991)

Personal life[edit]

When Nakanishi appeared at a reception where he was scheduled to receive an award or to present a scientific paper, the audience could most generally expect an added spectacular surprise treat, as Koji was a famous and talented magician.[5]

Koji Nakanishi married Yasuko Abe in 1945 (d. 2008). They have two children, Keiko and Jun, three grandchildren, Aya, J. Kenji López-Alt[6], and Pico, and a great-granddaughter.

The Nobel Prize winner Satoshi Ōmura was Nakanishi's student at Tokyo University of Education.[7]


  1. ^ Professor Koji Nakanishi | King Faisal International Prize
  2. ^ ISCE Newsletter Vol_23_3 Archived 2008-05-09 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "Nakanishi Prize". American Chemical Society. Retrieved November 21, 2014.
  4. ^ Columbia News ::: Columbia Chemist Koji Nakanishi Wins Prestigious Japanese Prize
  5. ^ Remarkable Columbians: Koji Nakanishi
  6. ^ https://twitter.com/kenjilopezalt/status/1112158393576443904
  7. ^ 【ノーベル賞受賞】大村智氏、常識破りの発想で治療薬開発 (1/5ページ) - 産経ニュース