Chemistry, Crayons, and Molecular Palettes: Chemist as Artist


Home / Chemistry, Crayons, and Molecular Palettes: Chemist as Artist
How do chemists create new compounds? With a chemical palette of molecules. Image by Decoded Science

How do chemists create new compounds? With a chemical palette of molecules. Image by Decoded Science

When you admire the tones and coloration within a work of art, it reveals the sights and perceptions of chemistry.

Whether the work is abstract or romantic, the impressions left upon the patron give insight into a non-science. A work of art – even when drawn with crayons – can be an inspiration to a chemist.

Chemists can draw from the richness of the molecular components in their own work.  How can the analytical nature of chemistry derive inspiration from works of art?

Works of art that seem different from a periodic table of elements are in fact similar.

Chemical Palette for Synthetic Chemists

The palette from which pharmaceutical/medicinal chemists could draw grew exponentially in linear time. Much like an artist finding new colors in their workbench, the urge to re-invent and experiment comes to mind of the chemist when new molecules are in reach. In that regard, a chemist’s work bench resembles a child’s play room; a virtual reality replete with tools that encourage growth.

Presently, there is one limit to which the chemist can take his or her imagination – not having enough crayons the virtual art box. Rather than fling the crayons about, the chemist possesses the ability to build, experiment and publish. It is as if the need to create could be funneled into creating a work of art.

An interesting case in point is the late R. B. Woodward – a Nobel laureate in chemistry in 1963; the citation was for his pioneering work in the complete synthesis of natural products.

Woodward’s toolbox was his capacity to draw upon disparate chemical literature and create novel methods of synthesis.  He is viewed by chemists as a visionary and ‘prophet.’  His 1944 synthesis of quinine shortened the war and his methodology is credited for developments in parallel and combinatorial synthesis.

Quinine molecule

Quinine molecule: Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Synthetic Nature Through Chemistry

Synthetic chemists strive to emulate paths which are akin to nature’s processes—in fact, the more the talented the chemist is, the more able he or she is to invent new schemes that resemble an evolutionary process.

Traditional synthetic chemistry takes place in a pyrex vessel; the mode of action involves the reacting molecules slamming into one another in a solvent. For instance,  a molecule like quinine, which Woodward successfully synthesized in 1944, took two years of lab work.

It is a point of zenith for 20th century chemists to synthesize quinine, the anti-malarial, since they derived the starting materials from petroleum.

Parallel Chemistry

Presently, quinine is not completely effective against malaria, so chemists are experimenting with new technologies.

A promising method is parallel or combinatorial chemistry. The emphasis of parallel synthesis is to selectively modify molecules in high volume.

Research conducted, in part at the University of California, Shionogi Ltd laboratories in Japan and St. Jude Research Hospital in Tennessee illustrates this concept.


7-Bromo-4-chloroquinoline to be modified by parallel synthesis. Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health

Scientists modified this molecule by selectively substituting different ‘groups or substituents at the Br (Bromine) and Cl (Chlorine) positions’ of the core molecule. The parallel synthesis resulted in an excess of 50 biologically active analogues-some more potent than the original, quinine. This synthetic campaign took a matter of months.

The next logical step is to automate the synthesis of new candidates, so the society may avoid the pitfall of chemical waste.

This ‘green technology’ entails immobilizing core molecule and selectively attaching the substituents in place. The green technology is, in essence, a nano-technique.

It was the original dream for chemists to selectively manipulate molecules-as if the molecules were macro-entities (rather than the statistical clouds in quantum mechanics).

Crayons and Chemistry: Tools of Creation

One of childhood’s first tools of creation is the crayon. Unlike the ‘building block’, the use of color may allow the child to see ‘action at a distance’ in an artistic manner. Children use crayons, like the paints on an artist’s palette, in ways unimaginable. Whether the tool is used for the unflinching re-creation in a ‘romantic sense’ or the psychological probing in the ‘abstract sense,’ the use of color never leaves the imagination.

Once creativity leaps from the mind to the laboratory, the urge to build and communicate  – whether with crayons or molecules – holds no bounds.

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