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Two Scientists With SoCal Ties Win A Nobel Prize In Chemistry

A man in an open-neck blue shirt and dark suit jacket chugs a bottle of champagne while people stand on balconies above him and cheer.
The co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Benjamin List, drinks from a bottle of sparkling wine as he is applauded by colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Muehlheim, Germany on October 6, 2021
(Ina Fassbender
/
AFP via Getty Images)
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Two scientists have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing "an ingenious tool for building molecules" that is also cheap and environmentally-friendly.

SoCal Ties
  • David MacMillan completed his PhD in chemistry at UC Irvine. He then taught at UC Berkeley and Caltech. MacMillan shares the Nobel prize with Benjamin List of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany. List made a similar but separate discovery that's also connected to Southern California. Most of his work happened at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Wednesday that the award would be shared by Benjamin List of the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany, and David MacMillan, at Princeton University in the United States.

About 20 years ago, the two independently pioneered the development of a new kind of catalyst, a substance that can drive a chemical reaction.

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Traditionally, chemists have used enzymes or metal catalysts. But these two researchers figured out that small, organic molecules can be used to drive all kinds of chemical reactions. MacMillan coined the term "organocatalysis" to describe the new concept.

The Nobel committee noted that organocatalysis is especially useful when researchers want to make a molecule and selectively produce one of its two mirror images, which is called asymmetric organocatalysis. This has proven to be particularly important for pharmaceuticals.

NOBEL PRIZE CHEM 2021
Co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Benjamin List, poses for a picture next to a poster of the Nobel Prize at the Max Planck Institute in Muehlheim, Germany on October 6, 2021.
(Ina Fassbender
/
AFP via Getty Images)

"The prize is about making chemical molecules. And the laureates have developed a truly elegant tool for this, simpler than one could ever imagine," explained Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, in a press conference held by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to announce the winners.

"The discoveries initiated a totally new way of thinking for how to put together chemical molecules. This new toolbox is used widely today, for example in drug discovery," she added. "It's already benefiting humankind greatly."

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List got the news in a phone call while on vacation with his family. "I absolutely didn't expect this huge surprise," he said, noting that he'd been having breakfast with his wife. "And then Sweden appears on my phone."

"It's hard to describe what you feel in that moment," List said. "It was a very special moment that I will never forget, for sure."

In recent years, the Nobel Prizes for science have been criticized for going overwhelmingly to men. Before this announcement, the Nobel Prize in chemistry had been won by 185 individuals. Only seven were women. All of the winners this year for the Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics, and chemistry are men.