The Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan, two scientists honored for creating “an ingenious tool for building molecules” that has helped develop new drugs and made chemistry greener.
The pair were awarded the prize in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday, “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.” Their discoveries “initiated a totally new way of thinking for how to put together chemical molecules,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the chemistry Nobel committee.
“This new toolbox is used widely today, for example in drug discovery, and in fine chemicals production and is already benefiting humankind greatly,” Wittung-Stafshede added.
German scientist List and US-based Scottish chemist MacMillan worked independently of each other but share the prize, the third Nobel award to be handed out this week.
In 2000 the two researchers uncovered a third kind of catalyst — a substance which brings about a chemical reaction — called asymmetric organocatalysis. Scientists had previously believed that there were just two types of catalysts: metals and enzymes.
“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 earlier,” said Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
The new catalysts have been used in a number of ways in the past two decades, including for creating new pharmaceuticals and building molecules that capture light in solar cells. The committee credited them with “bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.”
“I hope I live up to this recognition and continue discovering amazing things,” List told reporters after being announced as a winner.
List said he was having a coffee with his wife when he got the call from the Nobel Committee. “Sweden appears on my phone, and I look at her, she looks at me and I run out of the coffee shop to the street and, you know, that was amazing. It was very special. I will never forget,” he said.
No women winners in science Nobels
“This is a fantastically important piece of chemistry and these two are undoubtedly leaders in that field,” Phillip Broadwith, business editor of Chemistry World magazine, told CNN after the announcement was made.
“This is very fundamental chemistry,” Broadwith added. “In its essence, it’s about making molecules and it’s about making them more efficiently, using less energy and without metals catalysts, which are problematic if they end up in pharmaceuticals.”
Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, commended the pair on the award and said their findings have proven invaluable.
“Organocatalysis has made a huge impact across chemicals synthesis. It has enabled us to develop new sustainable synthetic routes to important intermediates and products,” he said. “It has also freed us from always relying on metals, that are often elements at risk, for our catalysts.”
On Monday, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch. And on Tuesday, they were joined by three winners of the prize for physics — Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi.
Wednesday’s award adds two further Nobel laureates. But for the second time in three years, no women were recognized in the scientific awards.
“We don’t have any direct discussions with other committees about who wins the prize, but we do have discussions about how to support and increase women and it’s also important to support geographic diversity,” said Claes Gustafsson, a professor in medical biochemistry at the University of Gothenburg and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.
“We are inviting more women to be nominators and so on. It’s a long and strategic work,” he told CNN. “We were very happy to have two women [win the chemistry prize] last year and for sure we will have many women in the years to come. It’s a very high priority for us.”
The prizes for literature and peace will be announced later this week, before the economics award concludes the annual festivities on Monday.
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