Say you’re a medical researcher interested in a rare chemical produced in the roots of a little-known Peruvian flower. It’s called ratanhine, and it’s valuable because it has some fascinating anti-fungal properties that might make for great medicines. Getting your hands on the rare plant is hard, and no chemical supplier is or has ever sold it. But maybe, thanks to the work of University of Illinois chemist Martin Burke, you could print it right in the lab.
In a new study published in the journal Science today, Burke has announced the specs of a chemistry’s own version of the 3D printer—a machine that can systematically synthesize thousands of different molecules (including the ratanhine molecular family) from a handful of starting chemicals. Such a machine could not only make ratanhine step-by-step, but also could custom-create a dozen other closely-related chemicals—some never even synthesized before by humans. That could allow scientists to test the medicinal properties of a whole molecular family.