Three scientists shared the 2010 Nobel Prize for Chemistry on Wednesday for forging a toolkit to manipulate carbon atoms, paving the way for new drugs to fight cancer and for revolutionary plastics.
Richard Heck of the United States and Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki of Japan were hailed for producing "great art in a test tube."
The trio separately made outstanding contributions in organic chemistry, a field whose basis is carbon, one of the essential elements of life and also of innumerable industrial synthetics.
"It is important to emphasise the great significance their discoveries have for both academic and industrial research and in the production of fine chemicals - including pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals and high-tech materials - that benefit society," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said.
Through their work, organic chemistry has developed into "an art form, where scientists produce marvellous chemical creations in their test tubes," it said.
Heck, 79, retired in 1989 from the University of Delaware in the United States; Negishi, 75, was also based in the United States, at Purdue University in Indiana; Suzuki, 80, was based at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan.
The trio developed a process known as palladium-catalysed cross coupling, a means of knitting carbon atoms together so that they form a stable "skeleton" for organic molecules.
It has allowed chemists to synthesise compounds to fight colon cancer, the herpes virus and HIV, as well as smarter plastics that are used in consumer applications, such as ultra-thin computer monitors.
The discoveries "have had a great impact on academic research, the development of new drugs and materials, and are used in many industrial chemical processes for the synthesis of pharmaceuticals and other biologically active compounds," the academy said.
The Nobel has been awarded on four previous occasions for breakthroughs in organic chemistry - in 1912, 1950, 1979 and 2005.
In the 1960s, Heck laid the groundwork for coupling between carbon atoms by using a catalyser, or chemical to promote the process.
This was fine-tuned in 1977 by Negishi, who used a field of compounds known as organohalides, and taken a step further by Suzuki, who found a practical way to carry out the process using so-called organoborons.
Each of the three have lent their names to important chemical reactions. The Nobel jury pointed out that "today the Heck reaction, Negishi reaction and Suzuki reaction are of considerable importance to chemists."
Negishi said in an telephone interview with Swedish television that he was "sound asleep" when he got the crucial phone from Stockholm at around 5:00 am at home in Indiana.
"I am extremely happy," he said.
He said there had been "some people mumbling" that he could be awarded the Nobel, leading him to "vaguely" consider the possibility of becoming a Nobel laureate.
Suzuki told a press conference at Hokkaido University that he was "very pleased to have received such an honourable prize."
"It is especially important for such a resource-scarce country like Japan to develop in the area of science, because (Japan) can only thrive on its people's efforts to build knowledge," Suzuki added.
"I want to continue working for the betterment of younger generations," the 80-year-old laureate said.
Britain's Royal Society of Chemistry said it was not surprised by Suzuki's award, only that it had come so late.
He retired as a professor in 1994 after reaching a mandatory retirement age but remains an emeritus professor at Hokkaido, the university's website said.
"I'm very pleased to receive the prize," Heck told AFP when reached by telephone in the Philippines, where he now lives, saying dozens of people had gathered to congratulate him.
Heck, who retired in 1989, called his discovery "a useful laboratory reaction, with major applications in industry."
"But much of that is secret, and that is because they want to keep their patents" closely guarded, he said.
The American Chemical Society President Joseph Francisco said in a statement the Nobel committee's selection of Heck, Negishi and Suzuki was "wonderful."
"The winners are among the foremost scientists of our era," he said.
"Their research has led to creation of new molecules and compounds that have improved the lives of millions of people."
Last year, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath won the Chemistry Prize for work on the ribosome, a cellular process that makes proteins, the stuff of life.
Heck, Negishi and Suzuki will share 10 million Swedish kronor (1.49 million dollars, 1.09 million euros) and each receive a medal.