On Wednesday Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan were honored with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their invention of asymmetric organocatalysis.
Jonathon Nackstrand / Getty Contributor
This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to scientists who developed an environmentally friendly and inexpensive way to build high-precision molecules. Since its creation in 2000, its invention has become a staple in creating an abundance of materials essential to our lives. “It is already very beneficial to mankind,” said Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan are the scientists behind what they call “elegant” tool for building molecules. It’s called asymmetric organocatalysis and it’s absolutely fascinating.
For example, when manufacturing a drug, the variety of molecules that make up the drug must be 100% accurate. Just a tiny compound that should be out of place could turn a pain reliever pill into an outdated powder pack – or maybe even something dangerous.
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The announcement came early in the day for List, who said it was a moment he will never forget.
“I thought someone was kidding me,” List remarked to the committee at the first hearing in which he won the award. “I had breakfast with my wife.”
An interesting component of drug design that medical professionals grapple with has to do with the mirror images of molecules. Just as our hands are mirror images of each other, molecules also have reflections. The difference between the two is often so great that a left molecule could taste and smell different from its right-handed counterpart.
Our bodies can distinguish the mirror images, which means that the drugs we are taking must do this too.
With this in mind, scientists develop specific chemical reactions to create the exact type and mirror image of the molecules they are looking for. Such reactions are controlled, started and accelerated by so-called catalysts. Before the pioneering invention of organocatalysis, everyone thought their options were just metal catalysts or large enzyme catalysts.
While these compounds are effective, they can sometimes be imprecise in these important nuances of molecular makeup and tend to leave behind too much chemical waste. That’s why List and MacMillan’s tool changed the game. It introduced a third, novel catalyst into the pool: small organic molecules that don’t pose the same problems as metal and enzyme catalysts.
Wittung Stafshede called the groundbreaking development a “precise, inexpensive, fast and environmentally friendly” alternative to metal and enzyme catalysts.
“You don’t solve a problem, you add something,” said committee member Peter Somfai. “We have a new tool that we can use if we think about it – how do we solve this problem?”
“The obvious answers or the obvious solutions are sometimes just too obvious,” he continued. “I’m an organic chemist, I work with small organic molecules every day – but I haven’t thought about it. … It was just too obvious. “
But although the discovery was first made in 2000, List told the committee that it took a full 20 years to become familiar with the method of asymmetric organocatalysis. Therefore, he says, the invention is now being recognized.
“Our catalysts in the early days were perhaps a million times less efficient,” he said, adding that the team’s extremely reactive catalysts can now do things that can’t be done with enzymes or even the most sophisticated metal complexes humans have previously developed. “