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A moonshot for chemistry

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Science  21 Apr 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6335, pp. 231-232
DOI: 10.1126/science.356.6335.231

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Summary

Many people view chemistry as a mature field of research. But Martin Burke, a chemist at the University of Illinois in Champaign, believes chemistry is ready for a major new research initiative aimed at synthesizing the majority of natural products and their structural kin. This array of hundreds of thousands of small molecules made by microbes, plants, and animals impacts all aspects of modern life. Natural products and their chemical relatives represent more than half of all medicines, as well as dyes, diagnostic probes, perfumes, lotions, and so on. But isolating or synthesizing new natural products is slow, painstaking work. Two years ago Burke and his colleagues reported creating a machine capable of stitching together small building blocks to create a wide variety of natural products and related molecules. Now, a new analysis suggests that 75% of all natural product molecules could be synthesized by the machine if the community were to create just 1400 building blocks. Burke believes such an effort, including assembling building blocks into intermediate compounds and then folding them and tweaking them into their final structures, could cost $1 billion and take 20 years. But the payoff could be countless new medicines as well as a bevy of compounds for other uses.