STOCKHOLM – Two scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Wednesday to find a “brilliant” new way to build molecules that can be used to make anything from medicines to food flavorings.
Benjamin List from Germany and Scottish born David WC MacMillan developed “asymmetric organocatalysis” – work that has already had a significant impact on pharmaceutical research, said Goran Hansson, general secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. According to the jury, the tool also made the chemistry “greener”.
“It is already very beneficial to mankind,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, member of the Nobel Committee.
Making molecules – which requires the linking of individual atoms in a specific arrangement – is a difficult and slow task. Until the beginning of the millennium, chemists had only two methods – or catalysts – at their disposal to speed up the process.
“But everything changed in 2000,” said Wittung-Stafshede.
List of the Max Planck Institute and MacMillan of Princeton University independently reported that small organic molecules can be used to do the same job as large enzymes and metal catalysts in reactions that are “precise, cheap, fast, and environmentally friendly are”. She said. “This new tool kit is used today on a large scale, for example in drug research and in fine chemical production.”
Johan Åqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said, “This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it before.”
After the announcement, List said the award was a “big surprise”.
“I absolutely did not expect that,” said the 53-year-old, adding that he was on vacation in Amsterdam when the call came from Sweden.
List said he initially didn’t know MacMillan was working on the same subject, thinking his guess might just be a “stupid idea” – until it worked.
“I had a feeling that this could be something big,” he said.
It is common for several scientists working in related fields to share the award. Last year, the chemistry award went to Emmanuelle Charpentier from France and Jennifer A. Doudna from the United States for developing a gene editing tool that revolutionized science by providing a way to modify DNA.
The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over 1.14 million US dollars). The prize money comes from a legacy of the creator of the prize, the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the Physiology or Medicine Prize to the Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries of how the human body perceives temperature and touch.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded Tuesday to three scientists whose work has found order in seeming disorder and helped explain and predict complex natural forces, including expanding our understanding of climate change.
Prizes for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics will also be awarded in the coming days.