National Post (Latest Edition)

Creators of molecule-building precision tools win Chemistry Nobel

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STOCKHOLM • German Benjamin List and Scottish-born David Macmillan won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing tools for building molecules that have helped make new drugs and are more environmen­tally friendly.

Their work on asymmetric organocata­lysis, which the award-giving body described as “a new and ingenious tool for molecule building,” has also helped in the developmen­t of plastics, perfumes and flavours.

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

Catalysts are molecules that remain stable while enabling or speeding up chemical reactions performed in labs or large industrial reactors. Before the laureates’ breakthrou­gh findings at the turn of the millennium, only certain metals and complex enzymes were known to do the trick.

The academy said the new generation of small-molecule catalysts were more friendly for the environmen­t and cheaper to produce, and praised the precision of the new tools. Before asymmetric catalysis, man-made catalyzed substances would often contain not only the desired molecule but also its unwanted mirror image. The sedative thalidomid­e, which caused deformitie­s in human embryos around six decades ago, was a catastroph­ic example, it said.

“The fact is, it is estimated that 35 per cent of the world’s total GDP in some way involves chemical catalysis,” it added.

List said the academy caught up with him while on vacation in Amsterdam with his wife, who in the past had liked to joke that somebody might be calling him from Sweden.

“But today we didn’t even make the joke and certainly didn’t anticipate this, and then Sweden appears on my phone ... it was a very special moment that I will never forget.”

List, 53, is director of the Max-planck-institut fuer Kohlenfors­chung, Muelheim an der Ruhr, Germany.

He and Macmillan split the Us$1.14-million prize for breakthrou­ghs achieved independen­tly of one another.

“I am shocked and stunned and overjoyed,” Macmillan, 53, said from Princeton, where he works.

“It was funny because I got some texts from people in Sweden really early this morning and I thought they were pranking me so I went back to sleep. Then my phone starting going crazy.”

List said 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.

“Organocata­lysis was a pretty simple idea that really sparked a lot of different research, and the part we’re just so proud of is that you don’t have to have huge amounts of equipment and huge amounts of money to do fine things in chemistry,” Macmillan said.

Some scientists had suggested the rapid developmen­t of MRNA COVID-19 vaccines would be recognized this year.

“This is an extremely important topic we’re thinking about, but there will be more years, more Nobel Prizes,” said Pernilla Wittung Stafshede of the Swedish Academy of Sciences.

 ?? WOLFGANG RATTAY / REUTERS ?? German scientist Benjamin List, who shares the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with David Macmillan,
celebrates with well-wishers at the Max-planck-institute for Coal Research in Germany on Wednesday.
WOLFGANG RATTAY / REUTERS German scientist Benjamin List, who shares the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry together with David Macmillan, celebrates with well-wishers at the Max-planck-institute for Coal Research in Germany on Wednesday.

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