Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to 2 scientists for developing tool to build molecules

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

Prize goes to Scotland-born David MacMillan and Benjamin List of Germany

Nobel Prize in Chemistry laureate Benjamin List poses as he gives a news conference on Wednesday in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany. (Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images)

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

The work of Benjamin List of Germany and Scotland-born David W.C. MacMillan has already had a significant impact on pharmaceutical research and made chemistry "greener," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.

"It's already benefiting humankind greatly," said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel panel.

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.

'Cheap, fast and environmentally friendly'

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, made chemical reactions that "are precise, cheap, fast and environmentally friendly," said Wittung-Stafshede. "This new toolbox is used widely today, for example, in drug discovery and in fine chemicals production."

Johan Aqvist, 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 said.

Award a 'huge surprise'

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 per cent of the world's GDP, which is a pretty impressive figure," he said. "If we have a more environmentally friendly alternative, it's expected that that will make a difference."

Goran K Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, centre, and members of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry announce the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in Stockholm, Sweden, on Wednesday. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Speaking after the announcement, List said the award was a "huge surprise."

"You really made my day today," the 53-year-old said by telephone to the journalists gathered for the announcement from his vacation in Amsterdam.

'I hope I live up to this'

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.

"When I saw it worked, I did feel that this could be something big," he said of his eureka moment.

A laureate medal featuring the portrait of Alfred Nobel is pictured in 2015. Swedish inventor and scholar Alfred Nobel, who made a vast fortune from his invention of dynamite in 1866, ordered the creation of the famous Nobel prizes in his will. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Since their discovery, the tool has been further refined, making it many times more efficient, said List, noting that the "real revolution" was only just beginning.

List said 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.

'Stunned, shocked, happy'

Upon hearing the news, MacMillan told The Associated Press that he was "stunned, shocked, happy, very proud."

He said he didn't expect to get a call from the Nobel committee. "I grew up in Scotland, a working-class kid. My dad's a steelworker. My mom was a home help. I was lucky enough to get a chance to come to America, to do my PhD," he said.

His inspiration came when thinking about the dirty process of making chemicals — one that requires precautions he likened to those taken at nuclear power plants.

If he could devise a way of "making medicines faster by a completely different way" that didn't require vats of metal catalysts, the process would be safer for both workers and the planet.

"We recognized that not only would it make it faster, cheaper, it would also make it better — better for the environment, better for the world," he said.

Prize of almost $1.5M

It is common for several scientists who work in related fields to share the prize. Last year, the chemistry prize 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.

The award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.44 million Cdn). The money comes from a bequest left by the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896. 

On Monday, the Nobel for medicine was awarded to Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.

On Tuesday, the Nobel for physics was split: one half of the prize went to Syukuro Manabe, originally from Japan, and Klaus Hasselmann of Germany for their work in developing forecast models of Earth's climate; the second half of the prize went to Giorgio Parisi of Italy for explaining disorder in physical systems.

Over the coming days prizes will be awarded in the fields of literature, peace and economics.

With files from CBC News

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