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September 27, 2012
EMBL Chemical Biology: Discovering Catalysts
Right now, there's a talk going on from Helma Wennemers of the ETH. She's working on small peptidic catalysts for organic reactions, what one might think of as "mini-enzymes". They're certainly not as wildly effective as real enzymes, but they're a lot easier to find and modify. Here's an example, which has been extended to solid-supported catalysts here. And whenever I see a solid-supported catalyst, I think "Can you use that for flow chemistry?" I was glad to see that they're done just that - I don't think that work has been published yet, but it seems to work pretty well.
Chemistry like this is a good reminder of just how many catalysts remain to be found. I don't see any reason, a priori, for any reaction to be out of bounds for enzymatic-type catalysis. You have functional groups that can participate in some reaction mechanisms (as is the case for the proline nitrogen in the above work), you have stabilization of transition states, you have sheer physical proximity/effective molarity, and probably other effects that people are still arguing about. Eventually we'll get good enough to design such things, but for now, a combination of design and what I might call "enlightened brute force" looks like the way to go. I'd like to see someone pick some reaction types that are not catalyzed enzymatically and apply these techniques to make something we've never seen before. If we could figure out how to get new metallic centers into these this things (imagine an enzymatic palladium catalyst!), we could really do some wild chemistry. Mind you, I'm not the one who would be trying to get that funded.
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