'Synthetic' organic chemistry may be controversial but it's behind the development of many vitally important medicines – Professor Ryan Gilmour

Synthetic organic chemistry is vital in so many facets of modern life, such as drug discovery, materials science, and engineering.

It is also a field that responds and reacts brilliantly to global challenges, no better illustrated than the rapid development and introduction of household anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu and Covid treatment Paxlovid. So why then is the term ‘synthetic’ still so often viewed as controversial?

The world of synthesis is complex and emotive, ranging from the adverse environmental impact of plastic waste, through to the positive effects of next-generation pharmaceuticals and so-called ‘smart’ or responsive materials. Synthetic molecules are therefore best described as simply ‘suitable or unsuitable’ for a desired purpose. Good or bad doesn’t really come into it.

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Biologically active small molecules are woven into the fabric of society and many such as penicillin (antibiotic), quinine (antimalarial), morphine and aspirin (painkillers) are iconic and can be considered as milestones of 20th-century science. Some are naturally occurring and produced semi-synthetically for reasons of ecology and efficiency, whilst others are designed from scratch through logical molecular design.

What they all share in common, though, is that the societal needs they address have fuelled crucial scientific enquiry. This tradition continues today in the face of antibiotic resistance and in fighting infectious diseases, so in many aspects, synthetic organic chemistry has never been more important.

The way in which molecules are constructed is in a state of constant revision, with the environmental credentials of the process now very much in focus. The conception of new compounds with specific functions requires synthetic chemists to be creative, like a sculptor or architect, and this reveals an aesthetic side to molecular assembly.

My group at the University of Münster is particularly interested in developing efficient methods to create and manipulate new small molecules for applications in biomedicine. We study the way in which nature builds molecules and then translate these guiding principles to the laboratory. Inspired by photosynthesis, we have developed processes that harness light to drive reactions that produce essential vitamins and medicines, for instance.

Through studying the role of carbohydrates in biological recognition, we have been able to design simple non-toxic sugars and repurpose them for bacterial imaging, which uses a process called positron emission tomography. This has also provided us with a foundation to develop new synthetic vaccine candidates for meningitis.

Like Lego, small molecules can be combined with others to create more complex ensembles (Picture: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)Like Lego, small molecules can be combined with others to create more complex ensembles (Picture: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
Like Lego, small molecules can be combined with others to create more complex ensembles (Picture: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Understanding how small molecules interact with their targets, and ensuring they have the right characteristics for a given task, involves a process of logical molecular design. In many ways, synthetic chemistry shares similarities with Lego – unique pieces with certain properties can be iteratively combined with other pieces, to create more complex ensembles.

Enabling technologies and artificial intelligence will certainly contribute to functional molecule discovery in the future, but chemistry is not just about molecules, it's also about people. It is their innovation and creativity that is behind the magic on this molecular level. Synthetic chemistry should be embraced and appreciated for what it continues to contribute to our society.

Ryan Gilmour is chair of organic chemistry and Cimic professor of chemical biology at the University of Münster, Germany, and visiting global research fellow at the University of St Andrews. He is a corresponding fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The RSE, Scotland's national academy, is on Twitter at @RoyalSocEd

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