The quest to surpass Nature- what does she know that chemists don’t?

TranBy Minh Tran, University of Oxford


Chemicals originated from Nature have contributed to the advance of modern medicine, from penicillin to anti-cancer drugs. How does she make them so easily and effectively, and can we apply what we learn from Nature into the lab?

My pre-University years were spent at an all-girl school, whose nurturing environment allowed us to pursue any subjects at will, and the prejudice against ‘girls in science’, if there was any, did not concern us. I quickly found an interest in sciences, initially because they were difficult, and through reading and trying to solve the problems I have come to appreciate their elegance. The open-ended discussion and intriguing challenges that accompanied those classes soon became thoroughly enjoyable.

My decision to pursue Chemistry at University stemmed from the simple fascination with its intricate implication in our life: the chemistry that goes on inside us, in the air we breathe, the food we consume etc. The admission process into Oxford, however, was far from simple: it was lengthy and stressful; but happily the letter of acceptance arrived on Christmas Day. It was the first instance where Chemistry has led me somewhere wonderful, not just because of the alluring medieval and classical buildings here, but also the rigorous undergraduate programme that expanded my inquisitive mind. After a research Master year, I knew that a doctoral degree would be my next step.

I am currently working on natural product synthesis, which involves designing and testing ways to make interesting chemicals found in Nature. The humble plants, animals and bacterium have given modern medicine so much, from the well-known penicillin to more obscure anti-cancer drugs.

Although Nature can churn out complex chemicals we use in healthcare at ease, she does them only in minute quantity. In the case of Taxol, an anti-cancer drug, one tree would only give enough chemical for a single therapeutic dose.

Consequently, chemists need to exceed Nature, to make her chemicals reproducibly on a commercial scale. This is done either by improving existing ways, or designing new methods which allow direct access to chemicals that known chemistry has failed to achieve.

On paper, the task seems simple enough, but the refined machinery that is Nature, crafted through evolution, cannot be easily imitated in the lab, let alone surpassed. Inside each organism- us included- chemistry happens at mild temperature and pressure to make compounds with the correct structure and functions. This is often far from achievable in a chemical lab.

Hence, chemists are on the constant quest of keeping up with Nature by inventing new methods and new approaches. Her ever-growing library of medicinal chemicals permits infinite imagination and provides an unlimited playground for us.

Often, we fail to marvel at Nature, whose chemical wealth keeps us alive, helps us thrive, and leads one of the most advanced fields of science. SoapboxScience is the perfect platform for us to discuss and appreciate the complexity of the chemical world around us, how Nature achieves the incredible, and the quest undertaken by chemists to surpass her.


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