A pair of U.S. researchers and one from Japan won this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work dating back to the 1960s. The trio--William Knowles, now retired from Monsanto; Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya University in Japan; and K. Barry Sharpless of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California--created special catalysts that can generate a particular mirror image of a compound. The work has spawned a new discipline of chemistry and has proven vital for the production of compounds including pharmaceuticals, flavorings, advanced materials, and insecticides.
DNA, proteins, and most of life's other vital molecules come in mirror-image forms, like a left and right hand. This crucial property, known as chirality, enables interacting molecules, such as proteins and receptors, to easily recognize one another and react accordingly--and often differently, depending on which mirror image is present. Chemists first recognized chirality in the early 1870s. But to produce a specific mirror image compound, they had to first synthesize both forms indiscriminately and then purify the version they were looking for.
In 1968, Knowles, then with the chemical company Monsanto of St. Louis, Missouri, designed the first chiral catalyst, which added hydrogen atoms to pairs of carbon atoms bound to one another to produce specific chiral compounds. Shortly thereafter, he used this strategy to come up with the industrial production of L-DOPA, an amino acid used to treat Parkinson's disease. Noyori expanded on Knowles' early work to create a new approach for making more broadly useful hydrogen-adding chiral catalysts that are still widely used in industry today. For their work, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded them one-half of this year's chemistry prize. Sharpless of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, earned the other half for creating chiral catalysts that tack on oxygen, a feat that generated entirely new classes of chemical building blocks for synthesizing a wide variety of compounds including new drugs and materials.
George Whitesides, an organic chemist at Harvard University, says the Nobel committee likely had a difficult choice in awarding this prize, because other researchers, such as French chemist Henri Kagan, also played important roles in developing chiral catalysis. Nevertheless, Whitesides says he is "delighted" that Knowles, Noyori, and Sharpless were honored. "This combination of guys put together what has become a dominant theme in organic synthesis. It has motivated the chemical community for a number of years."