Three scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing tools that allow chemists to readily build complex carbon molecules from simpler ones – a key to fielding new classes of pharmaceuticals, materials, and new types of ultra-thin computer screens.
Each of the winners independently devised a way of enlisting a metal called palladium as a chemical matchmaker to encourage hard-to-mate carbon atoms to bind to one another in the presence of a third chemical, or "reagent."
In this case, the three scientists – Richard Heck, from the United States, and Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki, both from Japan – discovered how to use palladium as a catalyst in ways that made more efficient use of the primary ingredients in molecules they were forming, yielded more precise results, and allowed researchers to use increasingly mild reagents.
Armed with this palladium-based toolkit, chemists are having an easier go at reproducing in the lab complex carbon-based molecules that once appeared only in nature – allowing them to replicate substances that have a range of properties useful in medicine and industry. By some estimates, "no less than 25 percent of all chemical reactions in the pharmaceutical industry are actually based on these methods," says Claes Gustafsson, a biochemist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science committee that selected the winners. He made the comment in an interview with the Associated Press following Wednesday morning's announcement.
For decades, scientists have been captivated by the potentially valuable natural chemicals or materials plants and animals produce through biological processes at essentially room temperature. Often, reproducing these in the lab requires something of a brute-force approach – by introducing heat, for instance. Or researchers can use additional chemicals to stimulate the desired reactions, but doing so wastes some of the original ingredients in the process.
Case in point: a chemical produced by a species of Caribbean sea sponge that the organism uses to fend off predators. Biomedical researchers noted that the chemical, discodermolide, also showed promise as a cancer treatment.
Harvesting sponges for their discodermolide was out of the question. So was recreating the complex chemical in the lab – until the palladium-catalized cross-coupling techniques the Nobel trio developed were applied to the problem.
Scientists have also used the approach to develop antifungal agents for farming and enhanced the ability of organic light-emitting diodes, used in computer displays, to render the color blue – one of the three primary colors in visible light.
In the 40 years since the approach was first developed, researchers have continued to refine it. Earlier this year, for instance, scientists announced that they had attached palladium to graphene – a one-atom-thin layer of carbon that won two Britain-based scientists the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics Oct. 5 – and conducted the carbon-carbon bonding exercise in water.
Dr. Heck carried out his research at the University of Delaware, while Dr. Negichi conducted his research at Purdue University. Dr. Suzuki carried out his experiments at Hokkaido University in Japan. The three will split the $1.5 million check that comes with the award.