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Nobel in chemistry honors pair for way to build molecules; all you need to know

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Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021: Benjamin List, David WC MacMillan awarded for work on building molecules

The discovery being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 has taken molecular construction to an entirely new level. It has not only made chemistry greener but also made it much easier to produce asymmetric molecules.

FP Staff Last Updated: October 06, 2021 16:36:44 IST Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021: Benjamin List, David WC MacMillan awarded for work on building molecules

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.”

The Nobel Prize for chemistry has been awarded to German scientist Benjamin List of the Max Planck Institute and Scotland-born scientist David WC MacMillan of Princeton University.

They were honoured for their work in developing a new way for building molecules known as “asymmetric organocatalysis.”

The winners were announced Wednesday by Goran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Nobel panel said List and MacMillan in 2000 independently developed a new way of catalysis.

Why the Nobel Prize? 

Many industries and fields of research, including the development of new life-saving drugs, depend on chemists’ ability to build new and functional molecules.

Chemists can create new molecules by linking together small chemical building blocks, but controlling invisible substances so they bond in the desired way is difficult. It is so difficult that if we were to compare nature’s ability to build chemical creations with our own, we were long stuck in the Stone Age.

Even now, as chemistry has progressed from chiselling in stone to something more like fine craftsmanship, chemists need new and finer tools to increase the precision of their molecular constructions. And several of these tools discovered in the past have also been rewarded with the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The discovery being awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry has taken molecular construction to an entirely new level. It has not only made chemistry greener but also made it much easier to produce asymmetric molecules.

What’s their discovery about?

Benjamin List and David MacMillan have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their development of a new and ingenious tool for molecule building: organocatalysis.

During chemical construction, a situation often arises in which two molecules can form, which – just like our hands – are each other’s mirror image. These often have completely different effects in the body so chemists often just want one of these mirror images, particularly when producing pharmaceuticals. But it has been difficult to find efficient methods for doing this. The concept developed by Benjamin List and David MacMillan – asymmetric organocatalysis – is as simple as it is brilliant.

But what makes this discovery even more exciting is that not only do organocatalysts often consist of simple molecules, in some cases – just like nature’s enzymes – they can work on a conveyor belt. Previously, in chemical production processes, it was necessary to isolate and purify each intermediate product, otherwise, the volume of byproducts would be too great. This led to some of the substance being lost at every step of a chemical construction.

Organocatalysts are much more forgiving as, relatively often, several steps in a production process can be performed in an unbroken sequence. This is called a cascade reaction, which can considerably reduce waste in chemical manufacturing. They also make purification and isolation of molecules much more precise.

Background

Last year, the prize went to Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A Doudna of the United States for developing a gene-editing tool that has revolutionised science by providing a way to alter DNA.

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.14 million). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.

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

The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded Tuesday to three scientists whose work found order in seeming disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature, including expanding our understanding of climate change.

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

With inputs from AP and www.nobelprize.org

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