Scientists Behind ‘Ingenious’ Molecule-Building Tool Win Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Researchers Benjamin List and David MacMillan independently discovered cheaper, greener ways to create new molecules

A black and yellow line drawing illustration of the two male winners
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan for their independent work that revolutionized the construction of molecules. © Ill. Niklas Elmehed / Nobel Prize Outreach

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was jointly awarded to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan Wednesday morning for their development of a groundbreaking tool for molecular construction. Since their discovery of a new chemical catalyst over two decades ago, their work revolutionized pharmaceutical research and reduced the impact of chemistry on the environment. 

“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,” says Johan Aqvist, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

Catalysts—substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions—are critical to many areas of scientific research, from batteries to medications. The Nobel committee gave the example of catalysts in cars, which transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes into harmless molecules. For decades, scientists used two types of catalysts: metals and enzymes. The heavy metal catalysts that MacMillan, a professor at Princeton University, was working with at the time were tricky to use because they were easily destroyed by moisture and taxing on the environment. He wondered if there was an alternative—as did List, now director at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Germany. Using different methods, both scientists figured out that they could use tiny organic molecules to drive all sorts of chemical reactions.

The new approach, called “asymmetric organocatalysis,” works by building upon a framework of small organic molecules that other chemicals can attach to. Unlike metal catalysis, asymmetric organocatalysts are built out of simple organic molecules like oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus. It is also both environmentally friendly and cheap to produce, reports Jacob Knutson for Axios.

"The prize is about making chemical molecules. And the laureates have developed a truly elegant tool for this, simpler than one could ever imagine," said Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, in a press conference Wednesday. “This new toolbox is used widely today, for example in drug discovery,” she added. “It's already benefiting humankind greatly." 

Since List's and MacMillan's discoveries over two decades ago, organocatalysis has developed at an astounding speed. Their work is used ubiquitously—about 35 percent of the world’s gross domestic product involves chemical catalysis, report Marc Santora and Cora Engelbrecht for the New York Times. Their work is used in almost any industry and field that requires chemists to build new molecules, from energy-capturing solar cells and batteries to the latest running shoes. In addition to the honor of the award, the winners will receive 10 million Swedish kronor, which is around $1.1 million USD, to be split between the pair.

List received the news of the award while on vacation with his family. "I absolutely didn't expect this huge surprise," he tells Nell Greenfieldboyce for NPR. "It's hard to describe what you feel in that moment. It was a very special moment that I will never forget, for sure."

Last year’s chemistry prize was jointly awarded to two women, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, for their work on the pioneering genome-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. Not including the 2021 recipients, the Nobel Prize in chemistry had been awarded to 185 people, only seven of whom identify as women. The winners of the Nobel Prizes announced so far this year have all been men. The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded Thursday, the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday, and the Nobel in economic science will be announced on October 11.