From medicine to cosmetics to pesticides, we interact daily with small molecules made up of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. These molecules owe their unique functionality to their structure, the three-dimensional array of atoms in space. The significance of their structural makeup becomes apparent when considering that even the alteration of a single atom’s identity and orientation can induce changes in both the chemical and physical properties of these compounds. For instance, changes in orientation at a single carbon can turn a morning sickness drug into a toxic compound with severe birth defects. 

Despite the apparent simplicity of molecules in drawings, crafting them in a laboratory can be quite a challenge. The process is called chemical synthesis, and it often involves sequences of steps specific to each molecule. Scientists have long dreamed of a way to easily access similar molecules without having to redesign them each time. Fortunately, this may soon be a reality. A recent article showcased a reaction that enables precise atomic modifications at selected locations within the compound. This innovation allows scientists to easily switch between carbon and nitrogen atoms in a single step, making a difficult process almost as simple as erasing or drawing an atom on paper.

This new method streamlines the synthesis process, allowing for more efficient and flexible ways of making chemicals. The reaction is particularly groundbreaking for those in the pharmaceutical industry working on drug development, where strategies for substituting carbon with nitrogen are highly sought after. Even though this reaction can currently only work on select classes of compounds, it opens up opportunities to explore unknown chemistry, bringing a new dimension to the products we use in our daily lives.

This study was led by Mark Levin, an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Chicago, and Jisoo Woo, a graduate student researcher in Levin’s research group.

Managing Correspondent: Ariel Wang

Press Article: Atom-swap chemistry could aid drug discovery (News from Nature)

Original Journal Article: Carbon-to-nitrogen single-atom transmutation of azaarenes (Nature)

Image Credit: Freepik/pressfoto

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