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Grzybowski, Bartosz A.
School of Natural Science
Research Interests
  • Nano science
  • Nanomaterials
  • Programmable Reactions
  • Chemical Networks
  • Cellular Dynamics


Chemist Ex Machina: Advanced Synthesis Planning by Computers

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Chemist Ex Machina: Advanced Synthesis Planning by Computers
Molga, KarolSzymkuc, SaraGrzybowski, Bartosz A.
Issue Date
ACCOUNTS OF CHEMICAL RESEARCH, v.54, no.5, pp.1094 - 1106
Teaching computers to plan multistep syntheses of arbitrary target molecules-including natural products-has been one of the oldest challenges in chemistry, dating back to the 1960s. This Account recapitulates two decades of our group's work on the software platform called Chematica, which very recently achieved this long-sought objective and has been shown capable of planning synthetic routes to complex natural products, several of which were validated in the laboratory. For the machine to plan syntheses at an expert level, it must know the rules describing chemical reactions and use these rules to expand and search the networks of synthetic options. The rules must be of high quality: They must delineate accurately the scope of admissible substituents, capture all relevant stereochemical information, detect potential reactivity conflicts, and protection requirements. They should yield only those synthons that are chemically stable and energetically allowed (e.g., not too strained) and should be able to extrapolate beyond examples already published in the literature. In parallel, the network-search algorithms must be able to assign meaningful scores to the sets of synthons they encounter, make judicious choices which of the network's branches to expand, and when to withdraw from unpromising ones. They must be able to strategize over multiple steps to resolve intermittent reactivity conflicts, exchange functional groups, or overcome local maxima of molecular complexity. Meeting all these requirements makes the problem of computer-driven retrosynthesis very multifaceted, combining expert and AI approaches further supplemented by quantum-mechanical and molecular-mechanics calculations. Development of Chematica has been a very long and gradual process because all these components are needed. Any shortcuts-for example, reliance on only expert or only data-based approaches-yield chemically naive and often erroneous syntheses, especially for complex targets. On the bright side, once all the requisite algorithms are implemented-as they now are-they not only streamline conventional synthetic planning but also enable completely new modalities that would challenge any human chemist, for example, synthesis with multiple constraints imposed simultaneously or library-wide syntheses in which the machine constructs "global plans" leading to multiple targets and benefiting from the use of common intermediates. These types of analyses will have profound impact on the practice of chemical industry, designing more economical, more green, and less hazardous pathways.
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