Approaching the Summit of Chemical Synthesis

Chemists can now synthesize almost any molecule, but the push is on to make sure they keep the environment safe while doing it.

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It is now possible for chemists to synthesize almost any molecule, but there’s also a push to make sure their processes aren’t destroying the environment.

One solution to this problem is to string chemical reactions one after the other in the same reaction vessel, says Mark Lautens, professor of chemistry at the University of Toronto. Also called domino catalysis, stringing together series of reactions reduces the number of separate stages, thereby creating less waste and using less energy.

“The message has been coming through loud and clear for 20 years or so that we have to do better,” says Lautens. “We have to protect the environment more, and we also have to get our hands on molecules more quickly.”

From pharmaceuticals, to agrochemicals, to space-age materials, there are countless innovations that need testing and manufacturing. Many new compounds are modified from ones discovered in nature, and chemists are working to understand how to alter natural compounds to give them new properties, and then test them to make sure they behave the way they should.

“Nature provides us with an amazing diversity of compounds,” says Lautens. “As chemists, you can tweak molecules and learn how different structure changes function. So that’s something that nature isn’t good at doing, and we really are very good at doing.”

Once a promising molecule has been found, manufacturing it requires sustainable chemistry. That’s where domino catalysis comes in, because the pathways first used to access a new molecule is usually uses a lot of energy and produces a lot of waste.

“Sometimes people think of organic synthesis like climbing a mountain,” says Lautens. “The first time you climb it, it’s probably not going to be the best way to climb it; it’s just a way to climb it. Our job is to show you the fastest and the best way to get to the top.”

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Mark Lautens is the J.B. Jones Distinguished Professor, AstraZeneca Chair in Organic Synthesis and holds the designation of University Professor, the highest rank at the University of Toronto. Lautens completed his B.Sc. at the University of Guelph and his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he worked with Barry M. Trost and discovered new molybdenum and palladium promoted reactions.

He conducted postdoctoral work at Harvard University working with David A. Evans prior to taking a faculty position at the University of Toronto in 1987. He held an NSERC/Merck Industrial Research Chair for a decade (2003-2013).

His areas of research are to invent new chemical reactions and develop innovative strategies to the synthesis of bioactive molecules of interest to the agrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. The goal is to minimize the generation of waste through more efficient catalytic reactions. This work has resulted in >375 publications including reviews, book chapters and articles.

His work has been recognized by: NSERC (E.W.R. Steacie Fellowship, University Research Fellowship), the Royal Society of Canada (Fellow, Henry Marshall Tory Medal), CIC/CSC (CIC Medal, Catalysis Prize, Lemieux and Bader Awards), Killam Fellowship, Alexander von Humboldt Award, A.C. Cope Scholar and Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) Pedler Award. The University of Toronto awarded him the Faculty Award and the J.J. Berry Smith Doctoral Supervision Award. In 2015 he was awarded Officer of the Order of Canada by the Governor General.

He has trained >200 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who hold positions in academia, industry, law and medicine. Since 2017 he has contributed several OpEd pieces relating to science advocacy to the Globe & Mail and The Hill Times.

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