What’s so special about synthesis?

On Tuesday a piece form Phillip Ball appeared in Nature, with provocative question ‘Why synthesize?’ addressed to organic chemists, and particularly to adepts of total synthesis. And, you know what, after reading it, I didn’t feel like the author answered the question − for each argument he provides a counterargument. So the take home message I got was the following:

even though molecule-building is sure to remain a crucial part of the chemical enterprise, conventional organic synthesis need not be the only, or even the best, way to do it

When I started learning about organic chemistry, the book “Organic synthesis: the science behind the art” was one of the strongest inspiration sources for the subsequent choice of the major. This perception of the organic synthesis as the art is something that triggered my interest but what’s causing awkward feelings nowadays.

Like architecture, chemistry deals in elegance in both design and execution.

What exactly is meant by “elegance” of synthesis? “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” says the old proverb. So isn’t it disturbing that organic chemists themselves are the only ones who appreciate the elegance of total synthesis?

In my current opinion arranging synthetic steps in a reasonable manner is an engineering and project management problems, but by no means is it the art. There’s no more elegance in designing the synthetic scheme than in designing any other sophisticated multi-step experiment. So why don’t call microbiology the art, too? Why setting up the culturing of stubborn microorganisms producing natural products is different? After all, it’s often the same trial and error process yield a couple milligrams of the product in the end.

For me the synthesis is a means, not the goal. It’s a chemist’s way of solving problems. But other scientists may be interested in solving the same problems, too. So indeed, the synthesis is not the only and often not the best way to do it. That’s why chemists should focus on how to make it the best way. In this I’m staying with George Whitesides’s philosophy that simplicity should be the major goal. But that doesn’t make organic chemists unique among other scientists. That’s why I’d rephrase the following quote from Phillip Ball:

We need to avoid romanticizing an imagined bygone age […]

We [organic chemists] need to avoid romanticizing an imagined uniqueness of our field and train a broader look on problem solving.



Author: Slava Bernat

I did my PhD in medicinal chemistry/chemical biology of G protein-coupled receptors and then explored some chemical biology of non-coding RNA as a postdoc. Currently I'm working in a small biotech company in San-Francisco Bay area as a research chemist. I'm writing about science, which catches my attention in rss feed reader and some random thoughts or tutorials.

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