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nobel prize in chemistry

Image source: NobelPrize.org

Benjamin List and David MacMillan have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on building molecules that are mirror images of one another.

The two scientists were announced as the winners at an event in Stockholm.

Their chemical toolkit has been used for discovering new drugs and making molecules that can capture light in solar cells.

The winners will share the prize money of 10 million krona.

Asked how he felt winning, Scotland-born Prof. MacMillan, from Princeton University, said: “Dazed, confused, elated, proud, sentimental, weepy – you name it. I feel all of those things right now.”

German-born Prof. List was on holiday with his family when he heard the news: “I absolutely didn’t expect this huge surprise,” adding that he “thought it was a joke” when he received the call from Sweden.

The scientific process in question, called asymmetric organocatalysis, has made it much easier to produce asymmetric molecules – chemicals that exist in two versions, where one is a mirror image of the other.

Chemists often just want one of these mirror images – particularly when producing medicines – but it has been difficult to find efficient methods for doing this.

Some molecules with mirror versions have different properties. An example is the chemical called carvone, which has one form that smells like spearmint and a counterpart that smells like the herb, dill.

Nobel Committee member Prof. Peter Somfai reasoned that, if the body can differentiate between two mirror images, the same might be true for drugs used to treat illnesses. In other words, different versions of the same molecule might have different effects when ingested.

“Then it becomes important to be able to make only the mirror image of a drug that has the desired physiological effect,” he said during the news conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Nobel Prize 2021: David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian Share Prize in Physiology or Medicine

One tragic example of this principle was the drug thalidomide, approved for treating morning sickness and other conditions in the 1950s. It was withdrawn when it was found to cause disabilities in babies.

Thalidomide medication contained two mirror versions of the same chemical compound mixed in together. One of these versions damaged the developing foetus.

David MacMillan, 53, was born in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, and is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Benjamin List, also 53, is from Frankfurt, Germany. He is a professor at the University of Cologne and the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research.

Their work focused on catalysts, substances that can speed up chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product.

While at Harvard University in the late 1990s, David MacMillan had been working with metal catalysts. But the types used in his research were rarely taken up by industry. The problem was that, while the oxygen-free and moisture-free conditions demanded by some metal catalysts were possible to achieve in the lab, this was much more difficult at large scales.

David MacMillan began designing simple organic molecules (chemicals that contain carbon and hydrogen bonded together) which could do the same job as metals, but were not destroyed by moisture.

Meanwhile, Benjamin List was working towards a similar goal. He had been able to show that a simple amino acid called proline could act as a highly effective catalyst. It was also cheap and environmentally-friendly.

Prof. Somfai, who works at Sweden’s Lund University, said List and MacMillan had “rationalized their findings” in such a simple way that it was immediately appreciated by the scientific community”.

He added: “This resulted in a ‘gold rush’ – or an explosion – in this area… It’s easy to design new things given this easy explanation.”

The Nobel Committee said the technique had “taken molecular construction to an entirely new level”.

The Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel founded the prizes in his will, written a year before his death in 1896.

A total of 187 individuals have received the chemistry prize since it was first awarded in 1901.

Only seven of these laureates have been women. One person, the British biochemist Frederick Sanger, won the prize twice – in 1958 and 1980.

The country that has had most chemistry laureates is the United States, with 72 winners. Germany and the UK share second place with 34 laureates each.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded to Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa for the development of the world’s smallest machines.

They will share the 8 million kronor prize for the design and synthesis of machines on a molecular scale.

Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart and Bernard Feringa were named at a press conference in Sweden.

They have developed molecules with controllable movements, which can perform a task when energy is added.

The machines conceived by today’s laureates are a thousand times thinner than a strand of hair.nobel-prize-in-chemistry-2016

They could slip inside the human body to deliver drugs from within – for instance, applying pharmaceuticals directly to cancer cells.

This field of nanotechnology could also yield applications in the design of smart materials.

The prize recognizes their success in linking molecules together to design everything from motors to a car and muscles on a tiny scale.

“They have mastered motion control at the molecular scale,” said Olof Ramström, from the Nobel Committee.

Jean-Pierre Sauvage was born in 1944 in Paris, France. He is currently emeritus professor at the University of Strasbourg and director of research emeritus at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

His work provided early breakthroughs in the area of molecular machines. He had been researching the use of sunlight to drive chemical reactions but this work helped him work out that he could link different molecules together in a chain.

This was the first step towards building molecular machines. In 1994, Jean-Pierre Sauvage’s research group succeeded in making one molecule rotate around the other in a controlled manner when energy was applied.

Sir Fraser Stoddart was born in 1942 in Edinburgh, the UK. He is currently affiliated to the Northwestern University, in the US.

He made a key advance by threading a molecular ring on to a rod-like structure that acted as an axle.

He then made use of the ring’s freedom to move along the axle. When he added heat, the ring jumped forwards and backwards – like a tiny shuttle.

Fraser Stoddart’s group later built on this discovery to build numerous molecular machines, including a lift, a muscle and – in partnership with other researchers – a computer chip.

Bernard Feringa was born in 1951 in Barger-Compascuum, in the Netherlands. He is a professor in organic chemistry at the University of Gröningen, the Netherlands.

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to US researchers Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka, whose work shed light on how the billions of cells in our body sense their environments.

Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka will share the prize of 8 million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million).

Their work focuses on what are called G protein-coupled receptors, a number of proteins that reach through cell walls.

Understanding how they work has been crucial to unravelling the complex network of signalling between cells.

Sven Lidin of the Nobel committee started his summary of the work by shouting “Boo!” to assembled reporters; the rush of adrenaline one gets when scared, he explained, is just one manifestation of this vast network, communicating a chemical signal across billions of cells, through otherwise impenetrable cell membranes.

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to US researchers Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to US researchers Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka

Dr. Robert Lefkowitz, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland, was reached by phone during the conference. He explained that the receptors “serve as the gateway to the cells for many different neurotransmitters and hormones in our body”.

They capture signalling molecules both in healthy bodies and are the target for more than half of all pharmaceutical drugs, as Dr. Robert Lefkowitz said.

“They are crucially positioned to regulate almost every known physiological process in humans. As physicians, what we need to do in cases of disease is regulate the activity of these, like adrenaline, as you heard, serotonin, and dopamine.”

Dr. Robert Lefkowitz started investigating the receptors by following the movement of radioactive isotopes attached to hormones within cells in the laboratory, trying to track down how signals get through cell membranes.

Dr. Brian Kobilka – who is now at Stanford University in California – joined the team in the 1980s, and they took another tack to discover how the receptors come about, searching within the human genome for the code that lays out the genetic instructions for them.

Taken together, the pair’s work, as the Nobel site’s summary explains, represents “knowledge… of the greatest benefit to mankind”.

The first-ever Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to Dutchman Jacobus van ‘t Hoff for his research into reaction rates and osmotic pressure.

The total number of chemistry Nobel recipients has now reached 163.

On Monday, the 2012 prize for medicine or physiology was awarded to John Gurdon from the UK and Shinya Yamanaka from Japan for changing adult cells into stem cells, and on Tuesday the prize for physics was awarded to Serge Haroche of France and David Wineland of the US for their work in querying single light and matter particles.

The prizes for literature and peace will be awarded later in the week, with the economics prize to be announced on Monday.