Chemistry Nobel Prize for Benjamin List

The scientist is honoured for his discoveries in the field of chemical catalysis

Benjamin List, Director at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, is honoured with the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, together with David MacMillan from Princeton University, for their work on asymmetric catalysis. They have established for the first time that small organic molecules are suitable as mediators of chemical reactions. Previously, science assumed that only enzymes and metals, including often toxic heavy metals or expensive and rare precious metals, could accelerate chemical reactions and steer them in a desired direction. The small organic molecules that Benjamin List and David MacMillan introduced as catalysts are particularly suitable for asymmetric synthesis. In this process, only one of two enantiomers is produced - these are molecules that are like the left and right hand, which means they cannot be spatially aligned. Such molecules are involved in all biological processes and also play an important role as medical agents.

 Left or right hand? We all find out that there is a big difference when we try to write with the hand we are not used to. Thing are no different in chemistry. Many molecules, especially those that are involved in biological processes, exist in the form of two enantiomers that are as similar as the left and right hand - that is why such substances are called chiral (Greek for hand). Just as our two hands have five fingers, these molecules also resemble each other in structure at first glance. But like the fingers, the individual components of chiral molecules are arranged in mirror image. And in biology in particular, this often makes a big difference: for example, one variant of the chemical substance limonene smells like lemon, the other like orange. One form of the amino acid valine tastes bitter, the other sweet.

In medicine, it is particularly important to take into account the different effects of enantiomers. Otherwise, the consequences can be fatal, as the thalidomide scandal in the early 1960s showed. One form of the active ingredient thalidomide had a sedative effect and was also administered against nausea during pregnancy. The other form of thalidomide, however, caused malformations in newborns. In this case, however, one form is converted into the other in the body, so it would not have helped to use only the variant with the desired effect. However, this is the route that pharmaceutical companies usually take. However, many catalysts produce both forms of a chiral molecule equally. In asymmetric catalysis, where only one of the two variants is produced, the discoveries of Benjamin List and Davin McMillan have opened up completely new possibilities.

The phone call from Sweden - a joke?

The two chemists independently discovered in 2000 that even small, often inexpensive and non-toxic organic molecules can control a chemical reaction to produce only one variant. Benjamin List first observed this with the amino acid proline, which was later used in the production of the HIV drug darunavir. Previously, in chemistry, biology and pharmacy, it was thought that only enzymes or elaborately built catalysts containing metals, and often expensive or toxic ones, had this selective effect.

When Benjamin List got the call that he was being honoured with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery, he was sitting with his family in an Amsterdam café. "The Nobel Committee called my mobile phone," said the chemist. "When we were about to order, I saw the area code of Sweden on the display. My wife and I smiled at each other and said ironically, 'Here comes the call' - as a joke. But then it really was the call. It was an incredible moment."

Chemical and pharmaceutical industries now rely on small organic catalysts

"That the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Benjamin List today fills me with joy," says Max Planck President Martin Stratmann. "Benjamin List has opened a new chapter in catalysis research with great application potential. He has succeeded for the first time in developing organic catalysts with high stereoselectivity - a breakthrough rarely seen."

The idea to test proline as a catalyst came to Benjamin List rather casually. Curiosity had driven him to try it out after he stumbled across a reference to the catalytic effect of the amino acid. At first, however, he was rather unsure whether it was a useful experiment: "I was completely unsure. You don't think: 'Ha! I designed that! And now I'm going to be world famous!' No, rather: Hmm... Maybe it was a stupid idea. I'm sure others have tried it and know why it didn't work..." But no one had tried it before and it worked.

In the meantime, Benjamin List's and David McMillan's groups, but also many other researchers worldwide, have found countless organic molecules that catalyse chemical reactions and are very selective about which of two variants of a chiral molecule they produce. But it is not only in chemical research that the discovery of the two Nobel laureates has opened a door to a new field; today, the chemical and pharmaceutical industries also often rely on the simple chemical mediators.

Two Nobel Prizes for Max Planck scientists in 2021

Benjamin List was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1968, into a family with quite a remarkable tradition in the natural sciences: his great-great-grandfather was the chemist Jacob Volhard, whom at least all chemistry students know. And Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, herself a Max Planck Director and Nobel Prize winner in physiology and medicine, can now congratulate her nephew on also winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Benjamin List studied at the Free University of Berlin and earned his doctorate at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. Between 1993 and 2003, he did research at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, USA. In 2003 he then moved to the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, first as head of a research group and since 2005 as director of the department 'Homogeneous Catalysis'.

Benjamin List is already the second Max Planck researcher to be honoured with a Nobel Prize in 2021: Klaus Hasselmann, former director at the Max Planck Institute, received the Nobel Prize in Physics this year for his contributions to climate research. And last year, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Reinhard Genzel, two researchers from the Max Planck Society, were also awarded the highest science accolade. "Four Nobel Prizes in just two years for Max Planck scientists are testimony to our outstanding concept for success: great scientific freedom and sufficient resources secured for the long term are the foundation on which science can thrive," says Martin Stratmann. "These days we are experiencing a heyday of German science of which we can all be proud!"

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