Whitesides on total synthesis

14 April 2018 - Philosophy

George Whitesides has recently shared his thoughts on organic synthesis in an essay in The Israel Journal of Chemistry (DOI) In it he asks the big question about its future. Being a functional materials man Whitesides of course contrasts the aesthetics of complex biomolecule synthesis with the practical utility of molecules or materials that can actually do something (have a function). Curiously he introduces the concept of Organic Synthesis (with capitals) as a niche to be reserved for the complex construction of natural products in the tradition of the Woodward school. But did we not already have total synthesis for that? Whitesides does not mention it once and this is annoying because a formal definition of total synthesis is already hard to drag out of the specialists (they talk a lot about it but never explain what it is), a problem not solved by introducing an identical concept under a different name. But Whitesides is blunt about the future of Organic Synthesis: "almost any natural product can be synthesized, given enough time and effort" and industry is moving towards biopharmaceuticals anyway.

What else is there in the future? Of course many unsolved problems in chemistry are still out there, Whitesides mentions the origin of life problem but on the other hand the "Synthesis of commodity polymers is probably a solved problem". Any advice for the next generation of synthetic chemists? Chemists from India and China are just as good in organic synthesis as their counterparts from the more established countries making synthesis a global competition. All chemists will have to face the power of AI and continued process automation.

Two specific threats: according to Whitesides the development of complex drugs suffers from pressures on pharma prices. This argument seems me a bit odd as insanely high-priced drugs with powerless governments and insurers make up all the pharma headlines. Second threat: a fossil fuel phase-out is one thing but it deprives chemical industry of key specialty products.


With Derek Lowe providing the alert.