Chemistry Nobel goes to creators of new tools for building molecules
David MacMillan and Benjamin List win chemistry prize for designing tools that have helped make new drugs and are more environmentally friendly
Stockholm — German Benjamin List and Scottish-born David MacMillan won the 2021 Nobel prize in chemistry on Wednesday for developing new tools for building molecules that have helped make new drugs and are more environmentally friendly.
Their work on asymmetric organocatalysis, which the award-giving body described as "a new and ingenious tool for molecule building", has also helped in the development of plastics, perfumes and flavours.
"Organic catalysts can be used to drive multitudes of chemical reactions," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said. "Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells."
Catalysts are molecules that remain stable while enabling or speeding up chemical reactions performed in labs or large industrial reactors. Before the laureates’ breakthrough findings at the turn of the millennium, only certain metals and complex enzymes were known to do the trick.
The academy said the new generation of small-molecule catalysts were more friendly for the environment and cheaper to produce, and praised the precision of the new tools.
Before asymmetric catalysis, man-made catalysed substances would often contain not only the desired molecule but also its unwanted mirror image. The sedative thalidomide, which caused deformities in human embryos around six decades ago, was a catastrophic example, it said.
"The fact is, it is estimated that 35% of the world’s total GDP in some way involves chemical catalysis," it added.
List, 53, said the academy caught up with him while on vacation in Amsterdam with his wife, who in the past had liked to joke that somebody might be calling him from Sweden.
"But today we didn’t even make the joke and certainly didn’t anticipate this - and then Sweden appears on my phone... it was a very special moment that I will never forget," he said, dialling into the media briefing announcing the winners.
List, 53, is director of the Max-Planck-Institut fuer Kohlenforschung, Muelheim an der Ruhr, Germany.
He and MacMillan share the prestigious 10-million Swedish crown ($1.14-million) prize in equal parts for breakthroughs achieved independently of one another.
"I am shocked and stunned and overjoyed," MacMillan, who is also 53, said in statement from Princeton, the US university where he works.
"It was funny because I got some texts from people in Sweden really early this morning and I thought they were pranking me so I went back to sleep. Then my phone starting going crazy."
List said he did not initially know that MacMillan was working on the same subject and figured his hunch might just be a "stupid idea" until it worked.
"Organocatalysis was a pretty simple idea that really sparked a lot of different research, and the part we're just so proud of is that you don’t have to have huge amounts of equipment and huge amounts of money to do fine things in chemistry," MacMillan said.
Some scientists had suggested the rapid development of mRNA (messenger RNA) Covid-19 vaccines would be recognised this year, also possibly in the medicine category, which was awarded for discoveries on the sense of touch.
"This is an extremely important topic we’re thinking about, but there will be more years, more Nobel prizes," said Pernilla Wittung Stafshede of the Swedish Academy of Sciences.
The prizes, for achievements in science, literature and peace, were created and funded in the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel. They have been awarded since 1901, with the economics prize first handed out in 1969.
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