Japanese chemist wins U.S. award for molecular discoveries

Chemist Ryoji Noyori of Nagoya, Japan, will be honored June 12 by the world's largest scientific society for discovering fundamental ways to build mirror images of molecules. He will receive the 2001 Roger Adams Award in Organic Chemistry from the American Chemical Society at its national organic symposium in Bozeman, Montana.

"I feel any major discoveries cannot be planned but are made only by serendipity," said Noyori, professor of chemistry at Nagoya University, Japan. His own experience supports the view.

In 1966, while still an instructor at Kyoto University, Noyori was part of a research team studying step-by-step processes of certain chemical reactions. The group made chemical history when it happened to discover what became known as asymmetric catalysis -- the means to preferentially make one mirror image of a molecule over the other.

Like hands, many molecules have counterparts that are identical, but flipped. Such mirror images can be critically different, particularly where living organisms are concerned. An infamous example is the drug thalidomide -- one mirror image a highly effective sedative, the other a cause of limb defects in developing infants.

After his 1996 discovery, Noyori said, "the chemical community worldwide started to develop a range of asymmetric reactions along this line." The organic chemist himself is an inventor of a widely applicable controller called BINAP, which can preferentially assemble one mirror image more than 99 percent of the time.

BINAP-based molecules help orchestrate the formation of flavors such as citronellol, medicines such as prostaglandins, and a variety of other compounds.

Noyori, whose father was research director at a Japanese industrial company, was born in the early years of World War II. As the country tried to rebuild after the war, he grew up hoping "to contribute to society by becoming a talented chemist," he said. "Chemistry is not only beautiful and exciting but also greatly contrib

Contact: Rodney Pearson
American Chemical Society

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