David MacMillan (left) and Benjamin List. Images from Nobel YouTube announcement

Two scientists who made molecular developments in California — one in La Jolla — were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this morning for their impact on pharmaceutical research.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Benjamin List, a former student and assistant professor at Scripps Research in La Jolla, and David MacMillan, a former student at the University of California, Irvine and scientist at UC Berkeley and Caltech.

List and MacMillan were awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their independent work in developing a new substance that controls and accelerates chemical reactions that took place 20 years ago.

“For example, catalysts in cars transform toxic substances in exhaust fumes to harmless molecules,” according to a release from the Nobel Committee. “Our bodies also contain thousands of catalysts in the form of enzymes, which chisel out the molecules necessary for life.”

These substances, called catalysts, are fundamental in molecular chemistry; prior to the work of List and MacMillan, only metals and enzymes were available .

List and MacMillan were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on a new catalyst called asymmetric organocatalysis.

“This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” said Johan Aqvist, who is chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

List is a researcher at the Max-Planck-Institut fur Kohlenforschung in Germany and MacMillan is at Princeton University.

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