Nobel prizeThis year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to two scientists, the German Benjamin List and the American David Macmillan. This was announced by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. The duo developed an entirely new method for building molecules: organic catalysis.
Many industries and fields of research rely on chemists to build new molecules. Because functional molecules have a wide range of applications: from materials that capture light in solar cells or store energy in batteries to molecules that ensure our running shoes are more luminous or can slow disease progression in the body.
Chemists can make new molecules by attaching small chemical building blocks together, although this sounds simpler than it is. Because compared to nature, we’ve been baking very little of it. But little by little, scientists are getting better at it. Many of the inventions that contributed to this have already been awarded the Nobel Prize in the past. The 2021 prize winners have taken molecular structure to an even higher level. They came up with a simple but fascinating method: asymmetric organic stimulation. Their discoveries are the basis of an “entirely new way of synthesizing chemical molecules,” said Pernilla Whitting Stavshid, a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
Before 2000, all catalysts, that is, substances that affect a chemical reaction, belonged to two large groups: metals or enzymes. Thanks to these catalysts, molecules can be separated or grouped together. Molecules we encounter everywhere in our daily lives. From medicines and plastics to perfumes and food flavorings. At least 35% of the world’s GNP is related to catalysis.
Many scholars believe that it will remain with these two categories. Until Benjamin List, director of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, appeared on the scene. He looked at the work of enzymes and asked if it couldn’t be simpler. Enzymes are usually large molecules made up of hundreds of amino acids. But chemical reactions are often driven by one or a few individual amino acids in the enzyme. Benjamin isn’t out of the box’s question was: Should amino acids be part of an enzyme to start a chemical reaction? Or can a single amino acid, or other similar simple molecules, do the same job? Some scientific research later, generated asymmetric stimulation with organic molecules.
But he wasn’t the only one with this insight. In another lab, David MacMillan, now a professor at Princeton University, was also working on the same goal. Macmillan tried to see that the industry rarely used metallic catalysts because they were too difficult and expensive. So he set out to design simple organic catalysts. When he published the results he coined the term “organ stimulation”. Since 2000, developments in this field have accelerated. In recent years List and MacMillan have designed blocks of cheap and stable organic catalysts that can be used to drive a variety of chemical reactions, and are better for the environment and cheaper.
Medal, 10 million Swedish kronor, and immortality
On November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his will in which he donated most of his fortune to a series of awards, the Nobel Prizes. One section is devoted to “the person who has made the most important chemical discovery or improvement”.
Already 114 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 190 laureates since 1901. Only 7 of them have been women. Although there are 190 winners, there are only 189 individuals. Frederick Sanger won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry twice. The youngest award winner is Frédéric Joliot, who is 35, and the oldest, John B. Godeno, who is 97. Goodenough is also the oldest ever Nobel laureate.
Last year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuel Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 DNA scissors. The famous award is accompanied by a cash prize of SEK 10 million (equivalent to €980,000), and a unique medal designed by Eric Lindberg, And of course a place in the history books.
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