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“Ingenious tool for molecule building” earns scientists the 2021 Chemistry Nobel Prize

Wednesday, October 6th 2021 - 14:15 UTC
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List thought his hunch might just be a “stupid idea”” until it worked. List thought his hunch might just be a “stupid idea”” until it worked.

The 2021 Chemistry Nobel Prize has been awarded to German Benjamin List and Scottish-born David MacMillan for their achievements in the development of tools for building molecules that have helped make new drugs, it was announced Wednesday in Stockholm.

The jury found asymmetric organocatalysis was “a new and ingenious tool for molecule building,” which has also helped in the development of plastics, perfumes and flavors. The technique has made it much easier to produce asymmetric molecules - chemicals that exist in two versions, where one is a mirror image of the other.

“Organic catalysts can be used to drive multitudes of chemical reactions,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement. “Using these reactions, researchers can now more efficiently construct anything from new pharmaceuticals to molecules that can capture light in solar cells.”

Chemists often just want one of these mirror images - particularly when producing medicines - but it has been difficult to find efficient methods for doing this.

The academy also said the new method was more environment-friendly and also less expensive. Before asymmetric catalysis, man-made catalysed substances would often contain not only the desired molecule but also its unwanted mirror image. Sedative thalidomide, which caused deformities in human embryos around six decades ago, were a catastrophic example.

List, 53, is director of the Max-Planck Coal Institute. At first he did not know that MacMillan was working on the same subject and figured his hunch might just be a “stupid idea”” until it worked.

The Scottish-born Princeton University professor David W.C. MacMillan is also aged 53.

Wednesday's announcement also quashed hopes amongst scientists who had foreseen achievements such as mRNA (Messenger ribonucleic acid) COVID-19 vaccines would emerge victorious this year in either Chemistry or Medicine, but in that category the Swedish Academy went for discoveries on the sense of touch.

The chemistry award is the third of this year's crop of Nobel prizes and follows those for medicine or physiology, and physics, announced earlier this week.

The Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel founded the prizes in his will, written a year before his death in 1896. A total of 187 individuals have received the chemistry prize since it was first awarded in 1901.


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