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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 6, 2010

Organic Chemistry: A Lack of Challenges?

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Posted by Derek

I had an interesting email in response to my post on returning from the SciFoo meeting. I have to say, there weren't too many chemists at that one - not that it's a representative slice of science, to be sure. (Theoretical physicists and computer science people were definitely over-represented, although they were fun to talk to).

But perhaps there's another reason? I'll let my correspondent take it from here:

I worry a lot about organic chemistry, about the state of the discipline. I worry about the relative lack of grand challenges, and that most academic work is highly incremental and, worse, almost entirely the result of screening rather than design. There is still so little predictive power (at least in academia) in drug or catalyst discovery. I have a theory that the reason we're so brutal with each other in paper and grant refereeing is because we're essentially dogs under the table fighting for scraps.

There are big exceptions, which make me excited to be a scientist. There's usually something in Nature Chemistry that has the wow factor, for example. They're just so rare. . .

He went on to point out that other fields have results that can wow a general audience more easily, which can make it harder for even excellent work in chemistry to get as high a profile. As for that point, there may be something to it. High-energy physics and cosmology would, you'd think, be abstract enough to drive away the crowds, but they touch on such near-theological questions that interest remains high. (Why do you think that the press persists in calling the Higgs boson the "God particle"?) And biology, for its part, always can call on the familiarity of everyone with living creatures, possible relevance to medical advances, and the sheer fame of DNA. All these fields have lower-profile areas, or ones that are harder to explain, but they always have the big marquee topics to bring in the crowds.

Chemistry's big period for that sort of thing was. . .well, quite a while ago. We're at one remove from both the Big Overarching Questions at the physics end and the Medical Breakthroughs at the biology end, so our big results tend to get noticed according to how they relate to something else. If (for example) chemists achieved some breakthrough in artificial photosynthesis, it would probably be seen by the public as either physics or biology, depending on the inorganic/organic proportions involved.

But what about the first point: are we really running out of big questions to answer in this field? It's easy to think so (and sometimes I do myself), but I'm not so sure. Off the top of my head, I can think of several gigantic advances that chemistry could help to deliver (and hasn't yet). Room-temperature organic superconductors. That artificial photosynthesis I mentioned, to turn the world's excess carbon dioxide into organic feedstocks. Industrial spider-silk production. Small molecules to slow the aging process. A cheap way to lay down diamond layers on surfaces. And I haven't even mentioned the whole nanotechnology field, which is going to have to depend on plenty of chemistry if it's ever to work at all.

Now, it's true that looking through a typical chemistry journal, you will not necessarily find much on any of these topics, or much to make your pulse race at all. But that's true in the journals in even the most exciting fields. Most stuff is incremental, even when it's worthwhile, and not all of it is even that. And it's also true that of the big chemistry challenges out there, that not all of them are going to need organic synthesis to solve them. But many will, and we should be encouraging the people who feel up to taking them on to do so. Not all of them do. . .

Comments (56) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News | Who Discovers and Why


1. Wavefunction on August 6, 2010 9:19 AM writes...

I tend to think of chemistry as the lights, set and sound behind the show. Not as prominent as the actors but an essential and integrated backdrop without which the show could not exist.

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2. Tok on August 6, 2010 9:20 AM writes...

As far as general press is concerned, chemists also have to deal with the layman's use of the word "chemical" to mean something almost universally considered "bad". There isn't much of that in physics, cosmology, or biology.

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3. AlchemistOrganique on August 6, 2010 9:44 AM writes...

Perhaps chemistry is too practical and mundane to have the razzle-dazzle of esoteric studies such as cosmology or impractical biology. It's great transgenic model organisms can be engineered to fit studies worthy of publication in PNAS and Science. However, we are not going to make transgenic people. Venter's promises of personalized medicine have yet to be met, even though we are asymptotically getting closer.
@ Wavefunction: To me chemistry is like the dough of pizza. It is versatile and provides support to the showcase toppings. Yet in the end the under-appreciated crusts are tossed out with the rest of the trash.

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4. silicon scientist on August 6, 2010 10:21 AM writes...

Many of the "grand challenges" you mention are being pursued under the banner of "materials science." If you broaden your view to include the worlds of polymers, organic semiconductors, etc., then organic chemistry is quite a lively place at the moment.

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5. processchemist on August 6, 2010 10:42 AM writes...

IMHO there's still plenty of room for improvement. If we think about how good are living beings in assemble molecules of great complexity, our chemical synthetic abilities are, in the best case, sloppy.
The problem is maybe that we require a prigoninic jump in the whole field of catalyst/ligands research, based on some different approach still to be devised.

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6. heteromeles on August 6, 2010 10:43 AM writes...

Hmmm. I'm not a chemist, just an ecologist who's no longer looking for a job in academia (talking about brutal funding cuts, ahem, guys: your biology envy is radically misplaced).

I honestly disliked general chemistry (I have little talent for it) and I was forced to take non-majors organic chemistry for my PhD. I liked that class just fine, but as a requirement for my PhD, it was stupid: what on earth do I need to know about high temperature reactions with organic solvents? My world is aqueous reactions in aqueous solvents, and I didn't see anything on that until the last day of class, when we talked about DNA. To this day, I've used almost nothing from that class, and while it was informative, it was objectively a waste of time.

So, speaking as a foreigner, I'd say that's the challenge for organic chemistry: room-temperature reactions in water, preferably with stuff that can be readily broken down if it gets spilled.

In fact, I'll wrap that plea around a big, oil-soaked pelican corpse from the Gulf and throw it through one of your plate glass lab windows, if that would help.

I mean, we know fossil fuels are running out and we're going to be facing an energy crisis. Where's the R&D on the replacement processes for all the organic products we won't be able to make at a large scale in 50 years?

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7. Dr. smalls on August 6, 2010 10:43 AM writes...

The grand challenges in chemistry (things with WOW factors) are more applied now rather than fundamental. Most people don't care about the total synthesis of whocaresotoxin via unprecedented chemical reactions, but if the product tosses breast cancer into remission (regardless if the molecule can be produced industrially) in rats, then people take notice.

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8. Fries With That? on August 6, 2010 10:45 AM writes...

Why does high throughput screening continue to be the ugly duckling of drug discovery? It gets so little respect, it's so disparaged, yet time and time again, the results from HTS produce drug hits which turn into leads which turn into products. Yes, there is an element of luck to it, yes, oftentimes it does not work at all,but the scientists who take the information and run with it are performing science just like anyone else. Also, the importance of setting up the screen and not choosing artifacts as hits comes from biologists and chemists working together to recognize such occurrences.

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9. retread on August 6, 2010 10:50 AM writes...

The hell with utility. For me (but not for people who have to make a living and support their families) organic chemistry is an esthetic pursuit, just like music. For one example, look at the current edition of Clayden p. 949 (synthesis of citral). Some very elegant organic chemistry occurs in the body and is crucially important to our survival. Check out p. 956 -- synthesis of vitamin D2 from ergosterol which uses an electrocyclic reaction followed by a [1,7] sigmatropic shift.

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10. CMCguy on August 6, 2010 11:06 AM writes...

Like many things Org Syn may have reached a state of maturity that the class of grand challenges have gotten bigger so harder to achieve from perspective of past efforts but there is room to diversify. Excellent analogy by #1 Wavefunction as chemistry often makes contributions that enable practical applications in science and #5 processchemist is correct in that the contributions could be done even better. Unfortunately as #2 Tok suggests chemistry often viewed with negative connotations. May be beyond the grand challenge stage yet as often bemoaned here without some significant progress in discovering and development of new drugs (small molecules in particular) some of the most direct evidence that could be offered is dormant.

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11. bbooooooya on August 6, 2010 11:27 AM writes...

"organic chemistry is an esthetic pursuit, just like music"

Roald Hoffman said something along those lines in the 80s. I don't think it's true anymore. I think it's now more mechanics.

I doubt most of the pretty stuff KCN does has much utility: the nuts and bolts, sure, but what he (and others) have done is to reduce organic synthesis from art to engineering; they've proven that (with enough foreign PDFs who fear for their J-1s) if you can find a molecule in Nature, you can make it. Big whoop. And pass the salt.

it is gratifying when a chemist finds a molecule that ends up helping cancer patients. In the end, the chemist will get 0 credit, and will be lucky to still have a job.

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12. formerlawyer on August 6, 2010 12:15 PM writes...

My father, a retired Professor Emeritus of Physical Chemistry, would concur with siliconscientist - the action and the most game-changing developments would be in the material sciences. Quantum computing, organic substrates, nanomachines, new low-lubricant surfaces, more durable coatings etc. etc.

Given the coming energy and environmental challenges - this may not be too soon.

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13. Notmedchem on August 6, 2010 12:16 PM writes...

I read this article earlier today:

and it's highlights the points. Chemistry, Big Chemistry was first. We're the granddaddy of the applied sciences. We don't have any more big questions, but what we do is central to pretty much everyone else, except maybe astrophysics.

Organic Chemistry is about making molecules. I know most focus on drugs, but functional materials made of molecules are where organic chemistry has taken us.

It's a big continuum: The synthetic methods/natural products gives us the tools for the synthesis, macromolecules, supramolecule folks to make things with interesting properties, which gets picked up the materials scientists/engineers to make specialty and fine chemicals/materials.

Organic Chemistry isn't all about drugs...hence blogs like CBC.

@6 there are folks working on new feedstock molecules mostly esters/acids, it's the aromatics and partial aromatics that don't seem to have good "sustainable" starting points.

As for RT reactions in water, I always thought that's what biochemists did with the help of those weird things called enzymes...

Polarity is only for transition states, man.

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14. retread on August 6, 2010 12:44 PM writes...

#11 -"organic chemistry is an esthetic pursuit, just like music"

"Roald Hoffman said something along those lines in the 80s. I don't think it's true anymore. I think it's now more mechanics."

I knew him back in '62 and can see him saying something like that. The reason I go by the name Retread, is because that's exactly what I am.

I'm in the process of catching up on the organic chemistry of the last 48 years purely for esthetic reasons. I doubt we know all there is to know about organic chemistry presently. Clayden is very skimpy on how various metals interact with carbon. Even the topic of my junior paper written in 1958 -- the structure of the Grignard reagent doesn't appear to have been settled.

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15. chris on August 6, 2010 12:46 PM writes...

The total synthesis of a virus by Craig Venter caused quite a stir.
I'm always irritated when I see headlines suggesting "Doctors find a cure...." when in fact they merely diagnose and prescribe, it is the chemists who design and create the molecule that becomes the drug.

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16. Aspirin on August 6, 2010 1:02 PM writes...

"organic chemistry is an esthetic pursuit, just like music"

That may be true for you and it was certainly true for people like Woodward fifty years ago, but I don't think that's largely the case anymore. Most of the top organic chemists today are worried about other things (efficiency, 'green' chemistry etc.) and not aesthetic beauty. Shooting for the synthesis of maitotoxin with 20 postdocs in a cutthroat contest and hammer and tong approach is hardly anyone's idea of beauty. In other areas like materials synthesis and bio organic chemistry, organic chemistry has been pretty much reduced to an important but utility-providing science. Phil Baran may be one of the few chemists around who still appreciates the aesthetic motivation for synthesis.

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17. Anonymous on August 6, 2010 1:15 PM writes...

In 1967 one prominent chemist decided that chemistry had all been done and took himslef off to work in Artificial Intelligence.

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18. psi*psi on August 6, 2010 1:32 PM writes...

Room-temperature organic superconductors. That artificial photosynthesis I mentioned, to turn the world's excess carbon dioxide into organic feedstocks. Industrial spider-silk production. Small molecules to slow the aging process. A cheap way to lay down diamond layers on surfaces. And I haven't even mentioned the whole nanotechnology field, which is going to have to depend on plenty of chemistry if it's ever to work at all.

Funny how most of these challenges you've mentioned fall neatly within the realm of organic materials. And we really could use some people with good synthetic skills. If we could add some complexity to some of our targets without sacrificing too much yield, we might be able to do some amazing things.

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19. milkshake on August 6, 2010 1:38 PM writes...

most stuff in org chemistry is not incremental - right now it is rather excremental if you want to make living from it.

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20. milkshake on August 6, 2010 1:41 PM writes...

material science: it is strange how many properties kinase inhibitors share with organic materials for photovoltaics: flat polycyclic structures, terrible solubility, funny colors

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21. ronathan richardson on August 6, 2010 2:01 PM writes...

How about orally bioavailable small molecules that specifically inhibit a transcription factor.

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22. Mat Todd on August 6, 2010 2:40 PM writes...

Artificial photosynthesis is a nice example for this discussion. Very important area, big science, wow. But the design of the molecules required (and their mutual arrangement in space) is physical chemistry, or even straight physics. Making the relevant molecules will most likely be easy. While org chem is involved, I'd say we're a service industry there - "the lights, set and sound behind the show" (#1)

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23. J. Peterson on August 6, 2010 2:52 PM writes...

Semi-related cartoon.

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24. Chemjobber on August 6, 2010 3:28 PM writes...

It is really worth pointing out that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that growth in material scientist positions is supposed to be 12% between 2008 and 2018; by contrast, BLS suggests only 3% growth for chemists. (Granted, from an absolute point of view, there are 10X more chemists.) So, organic materials is probably a good place to reall