Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Genius or in tune with Nature?

A recent "Nova Science Now" episode about bird songs brought back memories of my graduate education in synthetic organic chemistry. What do bird songs have to do with chemistry? Nothing, except...

Bird songs are complex, but when songs were replayed at a slower speeds, many sounded like classical music. One bird song example sounded like the main theme Beethoven's Fifth Symphony!

What this episode implied is that Beethoven was inspired by a bird (Nature) and ran with the idea to compose his Fifth Symphony. The bird existed long before Beethoven, so it's very likely he sought inspiration from Nature. For this we call him a musical genius.

OK, so what does this have to do with chemistry?

Nature is the largest chemical factory in existence. Over eons, Nature made a fascinating array of molecules rich in structural diversity and biological activity. Some molecules may even cure the most insidious diseases know to man and it is the role of a synthetic organic chemist to make these molecules.

It takes a lot of knowledge, skill, planning, and some luck to assemble a complex molecule. A synthetic organic chemist must sort through thousands of reactions to determine the correct order of assembly. Most reactions don't apply and those that do are often frought with limitiations. It's science and art, and it's not an easy task.

Oftentimes, an organic chemist will enlist the help of Nature. Through bioanalytical chemistry, we can understand Nature's approach to complex molecule construction and substitute our own laboratory surrogates for each reaction. In many cases, laboratory surrogates for Nature's reactions do not exist. Rather than seeing this as a limitation, it serves as inspiration to create new chemistry.

So just like Beethoven, chemists are also inspired by Nature!

Indeed, Nature's approach to chemistry has inspired the creation of several amazing chemical reactions that makes the rapid construction of interesting molecules possible. Ultimately this translates into improved efficiency for the synthesis of modern medicines.

Nature continues to perform reactions that amazes and inspires even the most experienced chemists. It makes sense, Nature has a several hundred million years head start!

Dr. Dave

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