Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 – Benjamin List and David MacMillan awarded for organocatalysis

With asymmetric organocatalysis, the two chemists had developed an ingenious tool for the synthesis and construction of molecules, the committee justified its decision. Organocatalysis is used in drug research and has helped make chemistry greener.

What was researched?

By connecting molecular building blocks, chemists can create new substances. Controlling the assembly of the invisible building blocks is anything but easy and takes a long time. It is faster with catalysts. These are substances that accelerate chemical reactions or allow them to run in a certain direction.

Catalysts are typically enzymes or metals. Metals are used, for example, to process exhaust gases in cars. Enzymes occur in every living being. For example, they break down food into tiny components in our digestive tract. Benjamin List and David MacMillan independently developed another type of catalyst based on small organic molecules, amino acids. This “asymmetric organocatalysis” is said to be “a discovery of the century”, comments Ferdi Schüth, Director at the MPI for Coal Research and institute colleague of Nobel laureate List im Dlf.

Benjamin List came up with the idea through his work with enzymes. Enzymes are large, complex proteins. However, only a few building blocks of the protein are responsible for the production of molecules. Benjamin List wanted to know whether the reactive building blocks would work without the large enzyme around them. “To be completely honest: When I did the first experiment and saw that it worked – I thought: Wow, that could be something,” remembers the chemist on Deutschlandfunk.

“I was in my early 30s and I just felt like doing something crazy”
Nobel laureate in chemistry, Professor Benjamin List, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk

David MacMillan had worked with metal catalysts that could make identical copies of molecules. Molecules can come in two forms that are identical in construction, but mirror-inverted to one another, such as the right and left hand. Because this Mirror molecules often have different properties, it is important for industrial purposes to obtain only one of the two forms.

The metal catalysts that MacMillan works with were too expensive for industrial purposes. In search of a cheaper alternative, he came up with the idea of ​​testing small organic molecules and thus developed the same method independently of Benjamin List.

A simple amino acid can act as a catalyst (© Johan Jarnestad, Agnes Moe / The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

What is the significance of the research results?

The type of reaction acceleration developed by List and MacMillan uses small organic molecules called amino acids. They are much easier to work with than enzymes, but less toxic and cheaper than metals. The process helped make chemistry more environmentally friendly. The organic mini-catalysts are comparatively cheap, usually harmless to humans and nature and can be easily recycled.

The simultaneous discovery in two laboratories has given the field a huge boost. As a result of the occasional head-to-head race between List and MacMillan, organocatalysis continued to develop at an astonishing speed. With the help of these reactions, researchers can now manufacture many things more efficiently, from new drugs to molecules that can capture light in solar cells. The small catalysts are only slowly arriving in industry. There are mainly practical reasons for this: New tools bring new processes with them and the changeover takes time.

Symbolic representation of the amino acid proline (Johan Jarnestad, Agnes Moe / The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) (Johan Jarnestad, Agnes Moe / The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)Cheap, fast and clean
Small amino acids instead of large metal catalysts – this approach earned David MacMillan the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2021. He explained the basic idea of ​​his work on Deutschlandfunk in 2005, long before the prize was in sight.

About the winners

Actually wanted to David MacMillan studying physics in Glasgow, Scotland. “But it was terribly cold in the physics auditorium,” said the scientist who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in an interview. “It was much warmer in the chemistry auditorium, so I changed my subject. That sounds trivial now, and of course I liked the subject too.”

For his doctorate, the researcher, born in Bellshill, Scotland, in 1968, went to the University of California at Irvine, then to Harvard University on the US east coast and then returned to sunny California as a professor for a few years. He has been working at Princeton University since 2006.

Born in Frankfurt Benjamin List is Director of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Mülheim an der Ruhr. He joined the ceremony in Stockholm by phone after being surprised by the phone call on family vacation in Amsterdam.

Usually his wife always jokes at breakfast that he shouldn’t put his phone too far away on Nobel Prize Day. “This time she didn’t make the joke and then the display showed a call from Sweden,” he said with a laugh.

Announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021

Last year went to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. They received the award for their development of the CRISPR / Cas9 gene scissors. The method had been a strong contender for the famous prize for years. Before the two biochemists, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry had only been awarded to a woman five times.

A gold Nobel Prize medal lies in one hand.  (picture alliance / dpa / Karl Schöndorfer / (picture alliance / dpa / Karl Schöndorfer / Prize Award – Male power structures slow down women
Nobel prizes in science traditionally go mainly to men – although no fewer women study these subjects. Studies suggest that misjudgments of women’s performance and a lack of advancement opportunities are responsible.

The Nobel Week at a glance

The Nobel Prize is internationally recognized as one of the most important scientific awards. At the start of Nobel Week, the Award winners in the Medicine / Physiology category announced. This year’s award is shared by David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for research into sensory receptors. Half of the Nobel Prize for Physics, the winners of which were announced on Tuesday, goes this year to the pioneers of climate research Klaus Hasselmann and Syukuro Manabe and to the Italian Giorgio Parisi for his work on understanding complex systems. The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded on Thursday. The Nobel Peace Prize will follow on Friday and the Economics Award on Monday.

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