Field of Science

On synthesis, design and chemistry's outstanding philosophical problems

Chemists need to move from designing structure - exemplified by this synthetic receptor - to designing function (Image: Max Planck Institute).
Yesterday I wrote a post about a perspective by multifaceted chemist George Whitesides in which he urged chemists to broaden the boundaries of their discipline and think of big picture problems. But the article spurred me to think a bit more about a question which I (and I am sure other chemists) have often thought about; what’s the next big challenge for chemistry?

And when I ask this question I am not necessarily thinking of specific fields like energy or biotechnology or food production. Rather, I am thinking of the next outstanding philosophical question confronting chemistry. By philosophical question I don’t mean an abstract goal which only armchair thinkers worry about. The philosophical questions in a field are those which define the field’s big problems in the most general sense of the term. For physicists it might be understanding the origin of the universe, for biologists the origin of life. These problems can also be narrowly defined questions that nonetheless expand the understanding and scope of a field; for instance in the early twentieth century physicists were struggling to make sense of atomic spectra, which turned out to be important for the development of quantum theory. It’s also important to note that the philosophical problems of a field change over time, and this is one reason why chemists should be aware of them; you want to move with the times. If you were a “chemist” in the sixteenth century the big question was transmutation. In the nineteenth century when chemistry finally was cast in the language of elements and molecules the big question became theconstitution of molecules in the form of atomic arrangements.

Synthesis is no longer chemistry’s outstanding general problem

When I think about the next philosophical question confronting chemistry I also feel a sense of despondency. That’s because I increasingly feel that the great philosophical question that chemists are going to face in the near future is emphatically not one whose answer they will locate in the all-pervasive activity that always made chemistry unique: synthesis. What always set chemistry apart was its ability to make new molecules that never existed before. Through this activity chemistry has played a central role in improving our quality of life.

The point is, synthesis was the great philosophical question of the twentieth century, not the twenty-first. Now I am certainly not claiming that synthesizing a complex natural product with fifty rotatable bonds and twenty chiral centers is even today a trivial task. I am also not saying that synthesis will cease to be a fruitful source of solutions for humanity’s most pressing problems, such as disease or energy; as a tool the importance of synthesis will remain undiminished. What I am saying is that the general problem of synthesis has now been solved in an intellectual sense (as an aside, this would be consistent with the generally pessimistic outlook regarding total synthesis seen on many blogs.)

The general problem of synthesis was unsolved in the 30s. It was also unsolved in the 50s. Then Robert Burns Woodward came along. Woodward was a wizard who made molecules whose construction had defied belief. He had predecessors, of course, but it was Woodward who solved the general problem by proving that one could apply well-known principles of physical organic chemistry, conformational analysis and spectroscopy to essentially synthesize any molecule. He provided the definitive proof of principle. All that was needed after that was enough time, effort and manpower. If chemistry were computer science, then Woodward could be said to have created a version of the Turing Machine, a general formula that could allow you to synthesize the structure of any complex molecule, as long as you had enough NIH funding and cheap postdocs to fill in the specific gaps. Every synthetic chemist who came after Woodward has really developed his or her own special versions of Woodward’s recipe. They might have built new models of cars, but their Ferraris, Porches and Bentleys – as elegant and impressive as they are – are a logical extension of Woodward and his predecessor’s invention of the internal combustion engine and the assembly line.

A measure of how the general problem of synthesis has been solved is readily apparent to me in my own small biotech company which specializes in cyclic peptides, macrocycles and other complex bioactive molecules. The company has a vibrant internship program for undergraduates in the area. To me the most remarkable thing is to see how quickly the interns can bring themselves up to speed on the synthetic protocols. Within a month or so of starting at the bench they start churning out these compounds with the same expertise and efficiency as chemists with PhDs. The point is, synthesizing a 16-membered ring with five stereocenters has not only become a routine, high-throughput task but it’s something that can be picked up by a beginner in a month. This kind of synthesis might have easily fazed a graduate student twenty years ago and taken up a good part of his or her PhD project. The bottom line is that we chemists have to now face an uncomfortable fact: there are still a lot of unexpected gems to be found in synthesis, but the general problem is now solved and the incarnation of chemical synthesis as a tool for other disciplines is now essentially complete.

Functional design and energetics are now chemistry’s outstanding general problems

So if synthesis is no longer the general problem, what is? My own field of medicinal chemistry and molecular modeling provides a good example. It may be easy to synthesize a highly complex drug molecule using routine techniques, but it is impossible, even now, to calculate the free energy of binding of an arbitrary simple small molecule with an arbitrary protein. There is simply no general formula, no Turing Machine that can do this. There are of course specific cases where the problem can be solved, but the general solution seems light years away. And not only is the problem unsolved in practice but it is also unsolved in principle. Sure, we modelers have been saying for over twenty years that we have not been able to calculate entropy or not been able to account for tightly bound water molecules. But these are mostly convenient questions which when enunciated make us feel more emotionally satisfied. There have certainly been some impressive strides in addressing each of these and other problems, but the fact is that when it comes to calculating the free energy of binding, we are still today where we were in 1983. So yes, the calculation of free energies – for any system – is certainly a general problem that chemists should focus on.

But here’s the even bigger challenge that I really want to talk about: We chemists have been phenomenal in being able to design structure, but we have done a pretty poor job in designing function. We have of course determined the function of thousands of industrial and biological compounds, but we are still groping in the dark when it comes to designing function. Here are a few examples: Through combinatorial techniques we can now synthesize antibodies that we want to bind to a specific virus or molecule, but the very fact that we have to adopt a combinatorial, brute force approach means that we still can’t start from scratch and design a single antibody with the required function (incidentally this problem subsumes the problem of calculating the free energy of antigen-antibody binding). Or consider solar cells. Solid-state and inorganic chemists have developed an impressive array of methods to synthesize and characterize various materials that could serve as more efficient solar materials. But it’s still very hard to lay out the design principles – in general terms – for a solar material with specified properties. In fact I would say that the ability to rapidly make molecules has even hampered the ability to think through general design principles. Who wants to go to the trouble of designing a specific case when you can simply try out all combinations by brute force?

I am not taking anything away from the ingenuity of chemists – nor am I refuting the belief that you do whatever it takes to solve the problem – but I do think that in their zeal to perfect the art of synthesis chemists have neglected the art of de novo design. Yet another example is self-assembly, a phenomenon which operates in everything from detergent action to the origin of life. Today we can study the self-assembly of diverse organic and inorganic materials under a variety of conditions, but we still haven’t figured out the rules – either computational or experimental – that would allow us to specific the forces between multiple interacting partners so that these partners assembly in the desired geometry when brought together in a test tube. Ideally what we want is the ability to come up with a list of parts and the precise relationships between them that would allow us to predict the end product in terms of function. This would be akin to what an architect does when he puts together a list of parts that allows him to not only predict the structure of a building but also the interplay of air and sunlight in it.

I don’t know what we can do to solve this general problem of design but there are certainly a few promising avenues. A better understanding of theory is certainly one of them. The fact is that when it comes to estimating intermolecular interactions, the theories of statistical thermodynamics and quantum mechanics do provide – in principle – a complete framework. Unfortunately these theories are usually too computationally expensive to apply to the vast majority of situations, but we can still make progress if we understand what approximations work for what kind of systems. Psychologically I do think that there has to be a general push away from synthesis and toward understanding function in a broad sense. Synthesis still rules chemical science and for good reason; it's what makes chemistry unique among the sciences. But that also often makes synthetic chemists immune to the (well deserved) charms of conformation, supramolecular interactions and biology. It’s only when synthetic chemists seamlessly integrate themselves into the end stages of their day job that they will learn better to appreciate synthesis as an opportunity to distill general design principles. Let the synthetic chemist interact with the physical biochemist, the structural engineer, the photonics expert; let him or her see synthesis through the requirement of function rather than structure. Whitesides was right when he said that chemists need to broaden out, but another way to interpret his statement would be to ask other scientists to channel their thoughts into synthesis in a feedback process. As chemists we have nailed structure, but nailing design will bring us untold dividends and will help make the world a better place.

First published on the Scientific American Blog Network.


  1. This was beautiful and interesting.I loved it very much.Thanks for sharing it..

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  2. Lovely post, and something we should all be asking ourselves.

    I have to disagree at one point: that the origin of life is a problem for biologists. While this is clearly a subject that requires people from many disciplines (including biology, mathematics, and philosophy), it's ultimately a chemistry problem: once we know what life is, and the principles underlying its organisation, we are left with the world's most ambitious total synthesis problem. This is firmly a problem for chemists.

    Even working out the underlying principles is, as you allude to, the work of chemists. Theoretical work from mathematicians and the like is invaluable, and insight from biology is essential, but actually putting these ideas to the test and learning how to instantiate these principles requires... you guessed it... chemistry.

    But yes. Other than that little quibble, I think you've hit on a very important point. Figuring out how to effectively design molecules with the desired function in a general way would improve our efficiency immensely!

    1. Yikes, thanks, I actually meant the evolution of life. In fact it's an embarrassing typo since I have myself pointed out in several posts how the origin of life is chemistry's greatest unsolved problem! It's also interesting to take a look at what's being done with design right now. For instance protein design seems to have really benefited from computational techniques (most prominently in David Baker's work) but for me a lot of these techniques still suffer from many false positives and a black-box approach.

  3. Excellent post, and I think you are right to highlight design of molecules form first principles as a goal for chemists. Some more ideas:

    -can theoretical/computational chemistry predict chemical & physical properties of a molecule or system routinely to within experimental error? This would greatly enhance de novo design, essentially eradicating the need for synthesis of molecular libraries or testing hundreds of systems. Applications range across the chemical sciences from process engineering, materials science to pharmicokinetics.
    -understanding the chemistry of biology; feeds in to the above- the more we know about how chemicals behave in the body the less waste in designing new drugs and the better understanding of toxicology.
    -being able to "see" chemical processes on the molecular and atomic scale and being able to manipulate molecules specifically rather than generally.

    One thing is true is that any great philosophical target for chemists in the 21st century will not be done by chemists acting alone. More and more these fields and the solutions they throw up will involve chemists working with physicists, engineers, biologists and beyond.


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