3-D printing started with a wrench. Today, scientists are making molecules.

A team of chemists at the University of Illinois have built a machine that builds complex small molecules with a mouse click. It’s a 3-D printer at the molecular level.

3-D printing made certain engineering tasks fast and flexible. This machine could do the same for developing new drugs that use small molecules. Most medicines used today are small molecules.

Other technologies that use small molecules, such as solar cells and LEDs, could also benefit from this chemical 3-D printer.

“We wanted to take a very complex process, chemical synthesis, and make it simple,” said Martin D. Burke, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois. “Simplicity enables automation, which, in turn, can broadly enable discovery and bring the substantial power of making molecules to nonspecialists.”

Building small molecules in a lab setting is hard and time-consuming. The best chemists spend years making each one. That’s what Burke and his team wanted to address.

“Up to now, the bottleneck has been synthesis,” Burke said. “There are many areas where progress is being slowed, and many molecules that pharmaceutical companies aren’t even working on, because the barrier to synthesis is so high.”

The challenge was how to take a complex task and make it simple?

Burke’s team decided they had to go smaller. Break the complex molecules into smaller building blocks. These building blocks can easily be reassembled since they all have the same basic connector piece.

The press release explains what the chemists did next.

To automate the building-block assembly, Burke’s group devised a simple catch-and-release method that adds one building block at a time, rinsing the excess away before adding the next one. They demonstrated that their machine could build 14 different classes of small molecules, including ones with difficult-to-manufacture ring structures, all using the same automated building-block assembly.

Miles Fabian, of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (they funded part of the research), said, “it is exciting to think about the impact that continued advances in these directions will have on synthetic chemistry and life science research.”

“Perhaps most exciting, this work has opened up an actionable roadmap to a general and automated way to make most small molecules. If that goal can be realized, it will help shift the bottleneck from synthesis to function and bring the power of making small molecules to nonspecialists,” Burke adds. Check out the paper here.

The future is now. The next 15 years are going to blow our minds. Just imagine where we were 15 years ago. Hell, I didn’t even have high speed internet until 10 years ago.

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