Germany’s Benjamin List and US-based David MacMillan yesterday won the Nobel Chemistry Prize for developing a tool to build molecules which has helped make chemistry more environmentally friendly.
Their tool, which they developed independently of each other in 2000, can be used to control and accelerate chemical reactions, exerting a big impact on drugs research.
Prior to their work, scientists believed there were only two types of catalysts — metals and enzymes.
The new technique, which relies on small organic molecules and which is called “asymmetric organocatalysis” is widely used in pharmaceuticals, allowing drug makers to streamline the production of medicines for depression and respiratory infections, among others.
Organocatalysts allow several steps in a production process to be performed in an unbroken sequence, considerably reducing waste in chemical manufacturing, the Nobel committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
List and MacMillan, both 53, will share the 10-million-kronor ($1.1-million, one-million-euro) prize.
“I thought somebody was making a joke. I was sitting at breakfast with my wife,” List told reporters by telephone during a press conference after the prize was announced.
In past years, he said his wife has joked that he should keep an eye on his phone for a call from Sweden.
“But today we didn’t even make the joke,” List said.
“It’s hard to describe what you feel in that moment, but it was a very special moment that I will never forget.”
Asked about what the prize would mean for his future as a researcher, List promised he had “a few more plans.”
“I always like to go to the extremes. ‘Can we do things that were just impossible before?’ List told reporters. “I hope I live up to this to this recognition and continue discovering amazing things.”
MacMillan, born in Scotland, is a professor at Princeton University in the US, while List is a director at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
“Many research areas and industries are dependent on chemists’ ability to construct molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of disease,” the Academy said.
“This work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions, without becoming part of the final product,” it added.
List was the first to prove that the amino acid “proline,” which he called his favourite catalyst, could drive an aldol reaction, which is when carbon atoms from two different molecules are bonded together.
“Compared to both metals and enzymes, proline is a dream tool for chemists. It is a very simple, cheap and environmentally friendly molecule,” the Academy said.
Since their discovery, developments in the field can “almost be likened to a gold rush,” with List and MacMillan designing “multitudes of cheap and stable organocatalysts”, the science body noted.
For example, in 2011, researchers were able to make the production process for strychnine 7,000 times more efficient, reducing it from 29 chemical reactions to just 12, it said.
Ahead of yesterday’s announcement, analysts had said the chemistry field was wide open.
According to Clarivate, which maintains a list of potential Nobel Prize winners, more than 70 researchers had what it takes to be considered for the prize, given the thousands of citations they have received in scientific papers.
Last year, the Nobel went to France’s Emmanuelle Charpentier and America’s Jennifer Doudna, for developing the gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 — DNA snipping “scissors”.
The Nobel season continues with the two most closely watched prizes, literature today and peace on Friday. The winner of the economics prize will be announced on Monday.
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