Chemistry Nobel prize: Winners invented way to make mirror molecules

Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021.

Benjamin Checklist and David MacMillan

Niklas Elmehed / Nobel Prize Outreach

The 2021 Nobel prize in chemistry has been awarded to Benjamin Checklist and David MacMillan for creating a completely new sort of catalyst for making chemical reactions happen, and permitting chemists to decide on the “handedness” of their molecules.

“This new toolbox is used broadly at present, for example in drug discovery. It’s already benefiting humankind drastically,” mentioned Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel committee, throughout the prize announcement.

Up till 2000, mentioned Wittung-Stafshede, we solely knew about two sorts of catalysts for making chemical reactions happen. One sort is enzymes, that are giant molecules made from tons of or 1000’s of amino acids strung collectively.  The opposite sort is metallic catalysts, such because the platinum in catalytic converters. Usually the metallic is embedded inside a molecule.

Checklist, now on the Max Planck Institute for Coal Analysis in Germany, questioned whether or not a complete enzyme was actually wanted to catalyse one response. He tried utilizing a single amino acid known as proline as an alternative.

“Once I did this experiment, I believed perhaps it’s a silly thought,” mentioned Checklist. “Once I noticed it labored, I did really feel this could possibly be one thing huge.”

David MacMillan at Princeton College was working with a metallic catalyst, within the type of a small molecule that incorporates a copper atom. The issue was that this molecule was unstable. So MacMillan tried utilizing easy natural molecules – molecules that include carbon – that don’t include any metallic atoms. He discovered one which labored.

The work of Checklist and MacMillan confirmed for the primary time that small natural molecules can act as catalysts. Crucially, these small natural catalysts can generate molecules with a particular “handedness“. Many molecules are available in left or right-handed mirror pictures that may have completely different properties. For that reason, the sector is called uneven organocatalysis.

“You need to use small natural molecules to do the identical job as huge enzymes and metallic catalysts, in reactions which can be exact, low cost, quick and environmentally pleasant,” mentioned Wittung-Stafshede. “Their discoveries initiated a very new mind-set about how one can put collectively natural molecules.”

Checklist says the potential of this new sort of catalyst is now beginning to be realised. “Our early-days catalysts have been perhaps 1,000,000 occasions much less environment friendly,” he mentioned. “The true revolution of our discoveries is simply surfacing now with these extraordinarily reactive natural catalysts that may do stuff you can not do with enzymes and even with probably the most refined metallic complexes.”

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