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Scientist whose key advances were made in La Jolla wins Nobel Prize in chemistry

Goran Hansson of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (center) announces the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
(Associated Press)

Benjamin List, who worked at Scripps Research, will share the prize with David MacMillan, who worked at UC Berkeley.

Benjamin List, a former postdoctoral researcher and professor at Scripps Research in La Jolla, was awarded a share of the Nobel Prize in chemistry Oct. 6.

List and David MacMillan, a former researcher at UC Berkeley, will share the $1.14 million prize for inventing a better and “greener” way to create molecules to fight disease and store energy. The Nobel committee called it an “ingenious” tool that also will benefit industries beyond medicine and energy.

The advance “is as simple as it is brilliant. The fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” the committee said in a statement.

List, 53, currently a researcher at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung in Germany, told the Associated Press that the award was a “huge surprise. ... I absolutely didn’t expect this.”

MacMillan is now at Princeton University in New Jersey.

The news came two days after Ardem Patapoutian, a neuroscientist at Scripps Research, shared the Nobel in physiology or medicine for insights about skin receptors that enable people to sense heat, cold, pain, touch and sound.

Ardem Patapoutian and his research partner, physiologist David Julius, identified temperature and touch receptors.

The new prize underscores California’s outsized role in science.

Over the past 35 years, the Nobel in chemistry has gone to 23 scientists who either were based in California or had done their key work here.

The Oct. 6 prize also highlights Scripps’ lofty standing in science. The private biomedical institute has been home to several Nobel laureates. And in 2017, the journal Nature ranked Scripps as the most innovative institution of its kind in the world.

List, who was born in Germany, and Scotland-born MacMillan were honored for improving one of the most difficult and delicate processes in chemistry — building molecules.

To succeed, researchers have to link infinitesimal molecules together in a specific order. That requires the use of a catalyst, a substance that makes the process faster and more efficient by way of a chemical reaction. And it has to be done without making the catalyst part of the final product.

Until List and MacMillan made their breakthrough, there were only two types of catalysts — metals and enzymes.

The Nobel committee said the researchers created a third type of catalyst — known as asymmetric organocatalysis that’s composed of small organic molecules and makes the process cleaner, cheaper, faster and more precise. The scientists effectively built a better tool.

“Many research areas and industries are dependent on chemists’ ability to construct molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases,” the committee said.

About 35 percent of the world’s gross domestic product can be traced to catalysis in chemistry, the committee added.

The panel also said the process can create molecules that can capture light in solar cells, which has great implications for the field of energy.

The work has already had a significant impact on pharmaceutical research, said Goran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The tool also has made chemistry “greener,” the judges said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.