Two scientists got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for finding a “simple” new way of manufacturing molecules that could be used to make everything from medicines to food flavorings.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the work of Benjamin List of Germany and Scottish-born David WC Macmillan had already had a significant impact on pharmaceutical research and made chemistry “green”.
“It is already greatly benefiting mankind,” said Nobel panel member Pernilla Witung-Staffshed.
Making molecules—which require linking individual atoms together in specific arrangements—is a difficult and slow task. Until the turn of the millennium, chemists had only two methods – or catalysts – to speed up the process.
That all changed in 2000, when List from the Max Planck Institute and Macmillan of Princeton University independently reported that small organic molecules could be used to do the same thing as larger enzymes and metal catalysts.
The new method, known as asymmetric organocatalysis, produced chemical reactions that are “accurate, cheap, fast and environmentally friendly,” Witung-Staffscheid said. “This new toolbox is widely used today, for example, in drug discovery and in the production of fine chemicals.”
Nobel panel chairman Johann Laquist called the new method “as simple as it is”.
“The fact that many people have wondered why we didn’t think about it earlier,” he said.
Peter Somfai, another member of the committee, stressed the importance of discovery to the world economy.
“It has been estimated that catapult is responsible for about 35% of the world’s GDP, which is a very impressive figure,” he said. “If we have a more environmentally friendly option, hopefully it will make a difference.”
Speaking after the announcement, List said the award was a “huge surprise”.
“You really made my day today,” the 53-year-old told reporters gathered for the announcement from his holiday in Amsterdam by telephone.
List said he didn’t initially know Macmillan was working on the same subject and thought his hunch might just be a “stupid idea”—until it worked.
“When I saw it working, I thought it might be something bigger,” he said of his eureka moment.
Since their discovery, the device has been further refined, making it many times more efficient, List said, adding that the “real revolution” was only just beginning.
List said the award would give him even more freedom in his future work.
“I hope to live up to this recognition, to continue to discover more wonderful things,” he said.
Goran Hansson, general secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said Macmillan had not been reached by the time of the announcement.
It is common for many scientists working in related fields to share the award. Last year, the Chemistry Prize was awarded to Emmanuel Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna for developing a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA.
The coveted prize comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over US$1.14 million). The prize money comes from a will 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 about how the human body perceives temperature and touch.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded Tuesday to three scientists whose work helped explain and predict the complex forces of nature, including expanding our understanding of climate change.
In the coming days, awards will also be given for outstanding work in the field of literature, peace and economics.
Jordan reported from Berlin