University News | October 13, 2021
On October 6th, 2021, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly to Benjamin List of the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung and David W. C. MacMillan of Princeton University “for the development of asymmetric organocatalysis.”
Dr. Benjamin List is currently a Director at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung (Max Planck Institute for Coal Research) and also a Professor at the University of Cologne and a Specially Appointed Professor at Hokkaido University.
He has been working as a Principal Investigator at the Institute for Chemical Reaction Design and Discovery (WPI-ICReDD) at Hokkaido University since 2018, and was appointed a Specially Appointed Professor at the institution in 2020.
At a press conference held at ICReDD on October 7, 2021, Dr. Satoshi Maeda, Director of ICReDD, expressed his congratulations and joy for having the extraordinary figure as a member of the institute. “We all expected that Dr. List would receive the Nobel Prize at some point, but never imagined it would be so early,” said Maeda. “Dr. List shares the ICReDD’s concept to integrate computational science, information science, and experimental science, and has been actively participating in the institute from its early stage. It was actually Dr. List who devised the ICReDD’s slogan ‘Revolutionize chemical reaction design and discovery.’”
Dr. Nobuya Tsuji, a former Ph.D. student of Dr. List and a member of List’s research group at ICReDD, shared the same sentiments and stated his admiration to the Nobel laureate, saying, “He is my academic father, so I am excited as if we were family members.” He then summarized Dr. List’s achievements to the members of the media.
Catalysts are substances that accelerate chemical reactions and are essential in both biological processes and industrial chemistry. The best known types of catalysts are metals and enzymes. In 2000, Dr. List and Dr. MacMillan independently developed a third type of catalyst: asymmetric organocatalysts.
Dr. List demonstrated that a simple amino acid, L-proline, can catalyze a reaction producing one of the mirror image isomers — two molecules that are mirror images to each other. Such catalysts are of great importance, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, as the mirror image isomers can have different properties, e.g., one is a drug while the other is a toxin. Hence, it is crucial to selectively produce one of the two isomers. Moreover, L-Proline is advantageous because it is biocompatible, environmentally friendly, and can easily be modified to make derivatives.
On the same day, the members of ICReDD had the chance to talk through a video teleconference with Dr. List, who was in Germany. The call took place at ICReDD and was attended by the ecstatic researchers of the institute. In the teleconference, Dr. List encouraged young researchers, saying, “Follow your enthusiasm, do what you really love to do, and don’t anticipate the outcome. Don’t get attached to the outcome.”
Written by Aprilia Agatha Gunawan and Naoki Namba
Nobel Prize official announcement:
Congratulatory messages from Hokkaido University members:
Updated on October 14, 2021: Updated the description of the catalyst for more accuracy