Will synthetic organic chemists be replaced by a machine? Today’s (7 August ’14) Nature (vol. 512 pp. 20 – 22) describes RoboChemist. As usual the job destruction is the fruit of the species being destroyed. Nothing new here — “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” — Lenin. “I would consider it entirely feasible to build a synthesis machine which could make any one of a billion defined small molecules on demand” says one organic chemist.
The design of the machine is already being studied, but with a rather paltry grant (1.2 million dollars). Even worse, for the thinking chemist, the choice of reactants and reactions to build the desired molecule will be made by the machine (given a knowledge base, and the algorithms that experienced chemists use, assuming they can be captured by a set of rules). E. J. Corey tried to do this automatically years ago with a program called LHASA (Logic and Heuristics Applied to Synthetic Analysis), but it never took off. Corey formalized what chemists had been doing all along — see http://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/retrosynthetic-analysis-and-moliere/
Another attempt along these lines is Chematica, which recently has had some success. A problem with using the chemical literature, is that only the conditions for a successful reaction are published. A synthetic program needs to know what doesn’t work as much as it needs to know what does. This is an important problem in the medical/drug literature where only studies showing a positive effect are published. There’s a great chapter in “How Not to Be Wrong” concerning the “International Journal of Haruspicy” which publishes only statically significant results for predicting the future reading sheep entrails. They publish a lot of stuff because some 400 Haruspicists in different labs are busy performing multiple experiments, 5% of which reach statistical significance. Previously drug companies had to publish only successful clinical trials. Now they’ll be going into a database regardless of outcome.
Automated machinery for making polynucleotides and poly peptides already exists, but here the reactions are limited. Still, the problem of getting the same reaction to work over and over with different molecules of the same class (amino acids, nucleotides) has been solved.
The last sentence is the most chilling “And with a large workforce of graduate students to draw on, academic labs often have little incentive to automate.” Academics — the last Feudal system left standing.
However, telephone operators faced the same fate years ago, due to automatic switching machinery. Given the explosion of telephone volume 50 years ago, there came a point where every woman in the USA would have worked for the phone company to handle the volume.
A similar moment of terror occurred in my field (clinical neurology) years ago with the invention of computerized axial tomography (CAT scans). All our diagnostic and examination skills (based on detecting slight deviations from normal function) would be out the window, when the CAT scan showed what was structurally wrong with the brain. Diagnosis was possible because abnormalities in structure invariably occurred earlier than abnormalities in function. Didn’t happen. We’d get calls – we found this thing on the CAT scan. What does it mean?
Even this wonderful machine which can make any molecule you wish, will not tell you what cellular entity to attack, what the target does, and how attacking it will produce a therapeutically useful result.