Time for a confession: As a chemist who is firmly concerned with the inorganic-material-physical end of the specialist spectrum, synthetic organic chemistry has always been a dark art for me. And retrosynthetic analysis was probably the darkest of these arts. I remember all too well the struggles in one particular typewritten workbook in my sophomore year and groaned as I dutifully uncovered the next problem.
So if anyone is able to welcome the developments in Andy Extance’s feature, it is me – or at least I am more than 20 years ago (luckily nobody expects me to do organic chemistry on paper or in glassware these days). The idea of encoding synthetic chemists’ decades of reaction-based knowledge was almost like old commercial programmable computers a dream. In fact, if someone with the synthetic prowess of Nobel Prize winner EJ Corey tries to do so, I may not be alone in my retrosynthetic woes.
This is an area we have covered several times over the past few years, as developments have been reported in trade journals or startups have been bought by larger chemical companies. We thought it was time to take a deeper look, to find out a bit more about how the technology works – and perhaps more importantly, who is using it.
A question that is not covered in either our article or the research, but I am sure there are many chemists employed in the laboratory: what does the future hold for chemists themselves? Will synthesis planning software make them unemployed? As one great sage once said, predictions are difficult, especially about the future. But I’m going to risk an egg on my future face by guessing the answer probably isn’t.
Even the best retrosynthetic software still needs an experienced operator who can interpret its results and choose the best suggested route to connect. And by the time chemistry is advanced enough that every single possible reaction can be accomplished by the apocryphal one-armed operator in an old bathtub, it will likely also require chemists to run the reactions – or oversee an army of robots to run them for us.
Until then, the many experienced chemists can look forward to it. Help is on the way, in the form of software encoded with every reaction ever published and the brain to navigate chemical space. Pretty useful, I hope you agree.