On Wednesday, two scientists won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for finding an environmentally cleaner way to build molecules that can be used to make a large variety of compounds, from medicines to pesticides.
Benjamin List and David W.C. Macmillan’s work allows scientists to produce those molecules safely and efficiently. It also has a significantly less environmental impact as well. The process of building molecules requires linking individual atoms together in specific arrangements, a long, complex, and slow task. Until the start of the millennium, only two methods were available to speed up the process, using complicated enzymes or metal catalysts.
However, in 2000, List and Macmillan independently reported that small organic molecules could be used to do the job. The process has made the production of drugs much more manageable, including an antiviral and anti-anxiety medication, says the Nobel panel. “It’s already benefiting humankind greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the panel.
“They’ve found ways to not only speed up the chemical joining but to make sure it only goes in either the right-handed or left-handed direction,” said John Lorsch, director of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. He described the scientist’s work as “molecular carpentry.” The ability to control the orientation in which new atoms are added to molecules is essential. If you fail to do so, it can result in unwanted side effects, the Nobel panel explained. They cited the drug thalidomide as an example, which caused congenital disabilities in children. This is the second time, and the second day in a row, that a Nobel prize went to work that had environmental implications.