Organic chemists Yves Chauvin, Robert Grubbs, and Richard Schrock have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their groundbreaking research on a reaction called metathesis, which breaks the bonds of carbon-based molecules so that they can be combined with other elements including hydrogen, oxygen and chlorine to form new molecules. Not only has the process resulted in new compounds used to make everything from living tissue to plastics to therapeutic drugs for treating Alzheimer's disease, arthritis and HIV/AIDS, but it also produces fewer environmentally hazardous byproducts than previous methods did.

Organic chemistry is based on the multitalented carbon molecule, which has the ability to break apart and bind with a host of other elements. The process that makes it happen, called metathesis, was first reported in the 1950s and slowly gained notoriety as more and more chemists began to realize its potential. But metathesis requires a catalyst that can break apart specific molecular bonds while leaving other connections intact and involves many steps that produce wasteful by-products.

In 1971 Chauvin, now honorary director of research at the French Institute for Petroleum, outlined for the first time a streamlined recipe for how metal compounds could serve as those catalysts. It was Schrock and Grubbs who came up with the actual ingredients. After many attempts with various compounds, Schrock, a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported in 1990 that molybdenum was an effective catalyst. The breakthrough opened the floodgates on metathesis as an important process in synthetic chemistry. Unfortunately, molybdenum was sensitive to oxygen and moisture, which reduced its efficacy. Two years later, Grubbs, a chemistry professor at the California Institute for Technology, improved upon the work. He found that ruthenium could not only serve as a successful catalyst, but it was stable enough to initiate metathesis in the presence of air, alcohol or water. The finding was so significant that it is now held as the standard by which new catalysts are measured.

In a relatively short amount of time, the work of these three scientists has launched the development of new compounds that affect the lives of millions of people each day.