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Nobel in chemistry honors 'greener' way to build molecules

The process has allowed scientists to produce those molecules more cheaply, efficiently, safely — and with significantly less environmental impact.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Two scientists won the Nobel Prize for chemistry Wednesday for finding an “ingenious” and environmentally cleaner way to build molecules that can be used to make a variety of compounds, including medicines and pesticides.

The work of Benjamin List of Germany and Scotland-born David W.C. MacMillan has allowed scientists to produce those molecules more cheaply, efficiently, safely — and with significantly less environmental impact.

“It’s already benefiting humankind greatly,” said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel panel.

It was the second time in as many days that a Nobel went to work that had environmental implications. The physics prize honored developments that expanded our understanding of climate change, just weeks before the start of global climate negotiations in Scotland.

The chemistry prize focused on the business of making molecules. That requires linking individual atoms together in specific arrangements — a difficult and slow task. Until the beginning of the millennium, chemists had only two methods — or catalysts — to speed up the process, using either complicated enzymes or metal catalysts.

That all changed in 2000, when List, of the Max Planck Institute, and MacMillan, of Princeton University, independently reported that small organic molecules can be used to do the same job. The process has also made the production of drugs easier, including an antiviral and an anti-anxiety medication, according to the Nobel panel.

“One way to look at their work is like molecular carpentry,” said John Lorsch, director of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “They’ve found ways to not only speed up the chemical joining," he said, “but to make sure it only goes in either the right-handed or left-handed direction."

The ability to control the orientation in which new atoms are added to molecules is important. Failing to do so can result in unwanted side effects, the Nobel panel explained, citing the catastrophic example of the drug thalidomide, which caused birth defects in children.

Johan Åqvist, chair of the Nobel panel, called the new method as “simple as it is ingenious.”

“The fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” he added.

H.N. Cheng, president of the American Chemical Society, said the laureates developed “new magic wands.”

Before the laureates' work, “the standard catalysts frequently used were metals, which frequently have environmental downsides,” said Cheng. “They accumulate, they leach, they may be hazardous."

The catalysts that MacMillan and List pioneered “are organic so they will degrade faster, and they are also cheaper,” he said.

Peter Somfai, another member of the committee, stressed the importance of the discovery for the world economy.

“It has been estimated that catalysis is responsible for about 35% of the world’s GDP, which is a pretty impressive figure,” he said. “If we have a more environmentally friendly alternative, it’s expected that that will make a difference.”

Speaking after the announcement, List said the award was a "huge surprise.”

“You really made my day today," the 53-year-old said by telephone to the journalists gathered for the announcement from his vacation in Amsterdam.

List said he did not initially know that MacMillan was working on the same subject and figured his hunch might just be a “stupid idea” — until it worked.

“When I saw it worked, I did feel that this could be something big," he said of his eureka moment.

Since their discovery, the tool has been further refined, making it many times more efficient, said List, adding that the “real revolution” was only just beginning.

List said the award would allow him even greater freedom in his future work.

“I hope I live up to this, to this recognition and continue discovering amazing things,” he said.

MacMillan had not yet been reached by the time of the announcement, said Goran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

It is common for several scientists who work in related fields to share the prize. Last year, the chemistry prize went to Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and Jennifer A. Doudna of the United States for developing a gene-editing tool that has revolutionized science by providing a way to alter DNA.

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.14 million). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.

On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in physiology or medicine to Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.

The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded Tuesday to three scientists whose work found order in seeming disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature.

Over the coming days prizes will also be awarded for outstanding work in the fields of literature, peace and economics.

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Jordans reported from Berlin. Associated Press writer Christina Larson contributed from Washington.