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Organic synthesis is the construction of organic molecules via chemical processes. Organic molecules can often contain a higher level of complexity compared to purely inorganic compounds, so the synthesis of organic compounds has developed into one of the most important aspects of organic chemistry. There are two main areas of research fields within the general area of organic synthesis- total synthesis and methodology.
A total synthesis is the complete chemical synthesis of complex organic molecules from simple, commercially available (petrochemical) or natural precursors. In a linear synthesis there is a series of steps which are performed one after another until the molecule is made- this is often adequate for a simple structure. The chemical compounds made in each step are usually referred to as synthetic intermediates. For more complex molecules, a convergent synthesis is often preferred. This is where several "pieces" (key intermediates) of the final product are synthesized separately, then coupled together, often near the end of the synthesis.
The "father" of modern organic synthesis is regarded as Robert B. Woodward, who received the 1965 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for several brilliant examples of total synthesis such as his 1954 synthesis of strychnine. One of the most active research groups today is that of Kyriacos Costa Nicolaou of the Scripps Research Institute.
Each step of a synthesis involves a chemical reaction, and reagents and conditions for each of these reactions need to be designed to give a good yield and a pure product, with as little work as possible. A method may already exist in the literature for making one of the early synthetic intermediates, and this method will usually be used rather than "trying to reinvent the wheel". However most intermediates are compounds have never been made before, and these will normally be made using general methods developed by methodology researchers. To be useful, these methods need to give high yields and to be reliable for a broad range of substrates. Methodology research usually involves three main stages- discovery, optimisation, and studies of scope and limitations. The discovery may be due to serendipity, or may be from a flash of insight. Optimisation is where one or two starting compounds are tested in the reaction under a wide variety of conditions of temperature, solvent, reaction time, etc., until the optimum conditions for product yield and purity are found. Then the researcher tries to extend the method to a broad range of different starting materials, to find the scope and limitations. Some larger research groups may then perform a total synthesis (see above) to showcase the new methodology and demonstrate its value in a real application.
Many complex natural products occur as one pure enantiomer. Traditionally, however, a total synthesis could not easily make only a complex molecules as a racemic mixture, i.e., as an equal mixture of both possible enantiomer forms. The racemic mixture might then be separated via chiral resolution .
In the latter half of the twentieth century, chemists began to develop methods of asymmetric catalysis and kinetic resolution whereby reactions could be directed to produce only one enantiomer rather than a racemic mixture. Early examples include Sharpless epoxidation (K. Barry Sharpless) and asymmetric hydrogenation (William S. Knowles and Ryoji Noyori), and these workers went on to share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001 for their discoveries. Such reactions gave chemists a much wider choice of enantiomerically pure molecules to start from, where previously only natural starting materials could be used. Using techniquess pioneered by Robert B. Woodward and new developments in synthetic methodology, chemists became more able to take simple molecules through to more complex molecules without unwanted racemisation, by understanding stereocontrol . This allowed the final target molecule to be synthesised as one pure enantiomer without any resolution being necessary. Such techniques are referred to as asymmetric synthesis.
Elias James Corey brought a more formal approach to synthesis design, based on retrosynthetic analysis, for which he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1990. In this approach, the research is planned backwards from the product, using standard rules. The steps are shown using retrosynthetic arrows (drawn as =>), which in effect means "is made from". Other workers in this area include one of the pioneers of computational chemistry, James B. Hendrickson , who developed a computer program for designing a synthesis based on sequences of generic "half-reactions".
- K. C. Nicolaou, E. J. Sorensen, Classics in Total Synthesis, VCH, New York, 1996.
- R. B. Woodward, M. P. Cava, W. D. Ollis, A. Hunger, H. U. Daeniker, K. Schenker, Journal of the American Chemical Society 76, 4749 (1954).
- J. March, D. Smith, Advanced Organic Chemistry, 5th ed., Wiley, New York, 2001.
- E. J. Corey, X-M. Cheng, The Logic of Chemical Synthesis, Wiley, New York, 1995.
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