- David MacMillan and Benjamin List win Nobel Prize in chemistry
- They created new tools to build molecules
- These tools have helped make new drugs and are more environmentally friendly
STOCKHOLM, Oct.6 (Reuters) – Germany’s Benjamin List and Scotsman David MacMillan won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing new tools to build molecules that have helped make new drugs and are more environmentally friendly of the environment.
Their work on asymmetric organocatalysis, which the winning organization described as “a new and ingenious tool for building molecules,” also contributed to the development of plastics, fragrances and aromas.
“Organic catalysts can be used to drive a multitude of chemical reactions,” said the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules capable of capturing light in solar cells.”
Catalysts are molecules that remain stable while allowing or accelerating chemical reactions carried out in laboratories or large industrial reactors. Prior to the breakthrough discoveries of the laureates at the turn of the millennium, only certain complex metals and enzymes were known to do the trick.
The academy said the new generation of small molecule catalysts are more environmentally friendly and cheaper to produce, and praised the precision of the new tools.
Before asymmetric catalysis, man-made catalyzed substances often contained not only the desired molecule, but also its unwanted mirror image. The sedative thalidomide, which caused malformations in human embryos about six decades ago, was a catastrophic example, he said.
“The point is that it is estimated that 35% of total world GDP somehow involves chemical catalysis,” he added.
List, 53, said the academy caught up with him while on vacation in Amsterdam with his wife, who in the past liked to joke that someone could call him from Sweden.
“But today we didn’t even play the joke and we sure didn’t anticipate it – and then Sweden pops up on my phone… announcing the winners.
List, 53, is director of the Max-Planck-Institut fuer Kohlenforschung, Muelheim an der Ruhr, Germany.
He said he didn’t initially know MacMillan was working on the same subject and thought his hunch might just be a “stupid idea” until it worked.
He and MacMillan split the prestigious SEK 10 million ($ 1.14 million) prize equally for breakthroughs achieved independently of each other.
‘IMPACT ALL’ CHEMISTRY
MacMillan, 53, who said he was only the second in his working-class family from West Scotland to attend university, noted that it was often difficult for chemists to explain the importance of their work to the outside world.
“But the only thing I will say is that everything we do, or what a chemist does, has a permanent impact on everything around us,” he said during a briefing at Princeton University, where he is a professor.
The impact of his students’ work can be almost immediate, said MacMillan, who has dual American and British citizenship.
“They literally do experiments on a Tuesday, they find out something – we talk to the big pharma all the time and they learn what we’re doing – and they literally use it on a Friday,” he said.
Reflecting on the Nobel Prize, he said: “It’s one of those weird times in life where you have to sit down and think about all the people who brought you here, and (it) makes you very sentimental.”
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“This is an extremely important topic that we are 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 the fields of science, literature and peace, were created and funded by the will of Swedish dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel. They have been awarded since 1901, the economics prize being awarded for the first time in 1969.
($ 1 = SEK 8.8020)
Ludwig Burger reported from Frankfurt; additional reporting by Johan Ahlander in Gothenburg, Terje Solsvik in Oslo, Simon Johnson in Stockholm and Peter Szekely in New York; edited by Timothy Heritage
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