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August 4, 2010
Running Your Fingers Over A Single Molecule
Readers will remember the extraordinary pictures of individual pentacene molecules last fall. Well, the same IBM team, working with a group at Aberdeen, has struck again.
This time they've imaged a much more complex organic molecule, cephalandole A. As that link details, the structure of this natural product has recently been revised - it's one of those structural-isomer problems that NMR won't easily solve for you. Here's a single molecule of it, imaged by the same sort of carbon-monoxide-tipped atomic force microscope probe used in the earlier work>
Now, it's not like you can just look at that and draw the structure, although it is vaguely alarming to see the bonding framework begin to emerge. If you calculate the electon densities around the structure, though, it turns out that the recently revised one is an excellent fit to what the AFM tip picks up, while the other structural possibilities lead to different expected contours.
It's quite possible that as this technique goes on that it could become a real structure-determination tool. These are early days, and it's already being applied to a perfectly reasonable organic molecule. Of course, the people applying it are the world's experts in the technique, using the best machine available (and probably spending a pretty considerable amount of time on the problem), but that's how NMR was at the start, and mass spec too. Both of those are still evolving after decades, and I fully expect this technology to do the same.
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