Chemistry Nobel awarded for mirror-image molecules

Two scientists have been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on building molecules that are mirror images of one another.

German-born Benjamin List and Briton David MacMillan were announced as the winners at an event in Stockholm.

Their chemical toolkit has been used for discovering new drugs and making molecules that can capture light in solar cells.

The winners will share the prize money of 10 million krona (£842,611).

The technique, called asymmetric organocatalysis, has made it much easier to produce asymmetric molecules – chemicals that exist in two versions, where one is a mirror image of the other.

Chemists often just want one of these mirror images – particularly when producing medicines – but it has been difficult to find efficient methods for doing this.

Nobel Committee member Prof Peter Somfai, from Sweden’s Lund University gave the example of limonene, a molecule that exists in two mirror versions. The molecules behave in different ways: one version of the limonene molecule has a lemon scent, while its mirror image smells like orange.

“That means that our bodies can differentiate between the two mirror images. And the take-home message here is that… the same will probably be true for drugs that we take for diseases,” Prof Somfai explained during a news conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

“Then it becomes important to be able to be able to make only the mirror image of a drug that has the desired physiological effect.”

One version (L) of the limonene molecule smells like lemon, while its counterpart (R) smells like orange

The Nobel Committee said the technique had “taken molecular construction to an entirely new level”.

Prof Somfai described the research as a “game-changer”, adding: “We have a new tool in organic chemistry, and this is of the greatest benefit to humankind.”

The Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel founded the prizes in his will, written a year before his death in 1896.

A total of 187 individuals have received the chemistry prize since it was first awarded in 1901.

Only seven of these laureates have been women. One person, the British biochemist Frederick Sanger, won the prize twice – in 1958 and 1980.

The country that has had most chemistry laureates is the United States, with 72 winners. Germany and the UK share second place with 34 laureates each. (BBC)

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