Two scientists share Nobel in Chemistry for ‘greener way’ to build molecules

The new method, known as asymmetric organocatalysis, is used widely today, for example, in drug discovery and in fine chemicals production

The work of Benjamin List of Germany, and Scotland-born David W.C. MacMillan has allowed scientists to produce those moleculeswith significantly less environmental impact

Two scientists won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday for finding an ingenious new way to build molecules that can be used to make everything, starting from medicines to food flavourings.

The work of Benjamin List of Germany, and Scotland-born David W.C. MacMillan has allowed scientists to produce those molecules more cheaply, efficiently, safely, and with significantly less environmental impact.

“It is already benefiting humankind greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel panel.

Also read: Benjamin List, David MacMillan win Chemistry Nobel for new way to build molecules

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Making molecules which requires linking individual atoms together in specific arrangement is a difficult and slow task. Until the beginning of the millennium, chemists had only two methods or catalysts to speed up the process.

That all changed in 2000, when 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 big enzymes and metal catalysts.

The new method, known as asymmetric organocatalysis, “is used widely today, for example, in drug discovery and in fine chemicals production,” said Wittung-Stafshede.

Johan Åqvist, Chair of the Nobel panel, called the new method as simple as it is ingenious. “The fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” he added.

H.N. Cheng, president of the American Chemical Society, said that the laureates developed ‘new magic wands.’

Cheng said that before the laureates’ work, the standard catalysts frequently used were metals, which frequently have environmental downsides. They accumulate, they leach, they may be hazardous. “The catalysts that MacMillan and List pioneered are organic so they will degrade faster, and they are also cheaper,” he said.

Peter Somfai, another member of the committee, stressed the importance of the discovery for the world economy. “It has been estimated that catalysis is responsible for about 35 percent of the world’s GDP, which is a pretty impressive figure,” he said, adding that if we have a more environmentally friendly alternative, it is expected to make a difference.

Speaking after the announcement, List said that the award was a “huge surprise”.  List said that 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. “When I saw it worked, I did feel that this could be something big,” he said of his eureka moment.

List said that the tool has been further refined since their discovery, making it many times more efficient, and that ‘the real revolution’ was only ‘just beginning.’

List said that the award would allow him even greater freedom in his future work. “I hope I live up to this, to this recognition and continue discovering amazing things,” he said.

“MacMillan had not yet been reached by the time of the announcement,” said Goran Hansson, Secretary-General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

It is common for several scientists who work in related fields to share the prize. Last year, the prize for chemistry went to Emmanuelle Charpentier of France, and Jennifer A. Doudna of the United States, for developing a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA.

Also read: Here’s what Nobel prize winners for Physics did to deserve the honour

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.14 million). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895. On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in physiology or medicine to Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.

The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded Tuesday to three scientists, whose work found order in seeming disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature, including expanding our understanding of climate change. Over the coming days, Nobel Prizes for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics, are going to be awarded.

(With inputs from Agencies)

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