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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 7:47 EDT

French, US chemists win Nobel for carbon “dance”

October 5, 2005

By Simon Johnson

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Frenchman Yves Chauvin and Americans
Robert Grubbs and Richard Schrock won the 2005 Nobel Chemistry
prize for showing how to tailor-make molecules for cheaper,
cleaner chemicals and drugs to combat major diseases.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded them the 10
million crown prize for work in metathesis, where molecules
“dance round and change partners” to create new molecules.

In an unusual step, two men from the committee then took to
the floor of the wood-paneled academy hall and danced quietly
with two women, swapping partners to give a simple illustration
of the trio’s complex work.

The research into molecule synthesis has laid the
groundwork for the production of new drugs to treat illnesses
like Alzheimer’s, Down’s Syndrome, HIV/AIDS and cancer, as well
as having uses in agriculture, chemicals and plastics.

“Imagination will soon be the only limit to what molecules
can be built,” said the Academy citation, calling metathesis
“an example of how important basic science has been applied for
the benefit of man, society and the environment.”

The three prize winners have “revolutionized the way we
think about and make our molecules today,” Professor Steve Ley,
of Cambridge University in England, told Reuters. “It has
important implications for the pharmaceutical and agrochemical
industries.”

Schrock told Reuters TV outside his Massachusetts home that
he was notified of the prize at 5:35 a.m. (0935 GMT) and that
he was “very excited, very nervous. I have almost stopped
shaking.”

Grubbs, lecturing in New Zealand, said the news was “still
sinking in. I’ll probably have a couple of drinks.”

In France, Chauvin told France 2 television: “It is 35, 40
years after (I did the research). At my age you don’t change
your life … you continue to do the gardening.”

CHANGING PARTNERS

Metathesis, which means “changing places,” refers to the
reorganization of groups of atoms of carbon which form the
building blocks of all organic life on earth.

Chauvin, who is now 74, provided the “recipe” for this in
1971.

Schrock, who is 60 and works at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology and Grubbs, who is 63 and works at the California
Institute of Technology, developed effective and more stable
catalysts to reproduce the reaction.

Schrock said these catalysts “will do a kind of reaction
that really isn’t possible with traditional organic methods.”

“Things are being made commercially now that are really
based on this catalyst … new drugs to treat diseases, new
plastics, advanced plastics. In general organic and polymer
chemistry is being commercialized now based on this
technology.”

Only a few of the potential applications have so far been
looked into including synthesis of insect pheromones,
herbicides and additives for fuels. The process, which cuts the
number of steps necessary to synthesize new molecules, thereby
reducing cost, is also yet to be widely used in industry.

Adoption by manufacturers will be “a great step forward for
‘green chemistry’, reducing potential hazardous waste through
smarter production,” the Academy said.

(Reporting by Simon Johnson, Stephen Brown, Peter Starck,
Patrick Lannin and Niklas Pollard in Stockholm and Patricia
Reaney in London)