Pair win Nobel prize in chemistry for work on organic catalysts

Benjamin List and David MacMillan’s findings revolutionised development of drugs and hi-tech materials

Two scientists have won the 2021 Nobel prize in chemistry for the discovery of a new class of catalyst that has revolutionised the development of drugs and hi-tech materials.

The winners, Scottish-born David MacMillan, and Benjamin List from Germany, will share the award, presented by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and worth 10m Swedish kronor (£870,000).

The pair independently found that organic molecules can be used as catalysts. Before the breakthrough in 2000 there were just two classes of catalyst available: metals and enzymes, each of which have drawbacks. The new technique, asymmetric organocatalysis, has been widely applied in drug development and the discovery of new materials for electronic devices such as solar panels.

Organic catalysts are also environmentally friendly and cheap to produce.

“I am shocked and stunned and overjoyed,” MacMillan said, adding that he noticed a few texts from Sweden on his phone early in the morning and thought it was a prank so went back to sleep. “Then my phone started going crazy.”

MacMillan said the concept of organic catalysts was a “pretty simple idea” that had sparked off research in lots of different directions. “What we care about is trying to invent chemistry that has an impact on society and can do some good, and I am thrilled to have a part in that,” he said.

Speaking on Wednesday from Amsterdam, where he is on holiday with his family, List said he was “deeply honoured” by the award. “I absolutely didn’t expect this huge surprise,” he said.

List made his discovery while at the Scripps Research Institute in southern California, where he decided to investigate whether a small subunit of an enzyme, called an amino acid, could act as a catalyst by itself.

Taking a lead from an obscure line of research that had tailed off in the 1970s, he found that the amino acid, proline, was an extremely efficient catalyst and immediately recognised the wider significance of his discovery.

“When I first did this experiment I didn’t know what would happen, whether it was a stupid idea or if someone else had done it already,” said List. “When it worked I did think: ‘This could be something big.’ Of course, I didn’t expect this.”

MacMillan triangulated on the same discovery after a stint working on metal catalysts. He had become frustrated that research in the field rarely found industrial applications because the metals involved were so expensive and needed an environment free of oxygen and moisture to work. An added downside is that many metal catalysts are heavy metals, which can be harmful to the environment.

Based at University of California, Berkeley, MacMillan identified several simple organic molecules, which, as metal catalysts do, could temporarily provide or accommodate electrons in chemical reactions, making them ideal catalysts.

A huge advantage of the technique is that it produces asymmetric molecules – that is, just one version of molecules that come in a pair of mirror-image forms. This is crucial when producing medicines, because the body can react completely differently to the left-handed and right-handed versions of the same chemical.

A catastrophic example of this was with the drug thalidomide, which was used widely to treat morning sickness in the 1950s and 60s, but was later withdrawn when it was found to cause disabilities in babies born to mothers who had taken it. The drug contained two mirror versions of the same chemical compound, one of which was dangerous to the developing foetus.

“This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” said Johan Åqvist, the chair of the Nobel committee for chemistry.


Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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