Belgian BOSS

Greetings from Belgium, land of beer, chocolate, moules frites and organic chemistry. I’m at the 11th Belgian Organic Synthesis Symposium (BOSS) in Ghent, and it has a line-up to die for: Hartwig, Du Bois, Enders, Shibasaki, Fuerstner and Trost, to name but a few.

The event kicked off with Erick Carreira giving a full day of talks, covering the many aspects of his work, from total synthesis to hardcore catalyst design. He was initially almost thwarted by microphone feedback reminiscent of the sound effects from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (only louder). For some reason, even in the 21st century, conference organizers can’t get microphones to work properly. But once the sound problems were overcome, the talks were great. There are very few people that I’d happily listen to all day, but Carreira is one of them.

While talking about his work preparing an analogue of Amphotericin B, Carreira mentioned something that has become a theme of the conference – the continuing importance of total synthesis. There has been much touting of metabolic engineering – genetically modifying organisms to produce analogues of natural products – as an alternative to total synthesis. But as Carreira points out, it takes years to work out biosynthetic pathways in an organism, and then to modify that organism to knock out part of a pathway to produce just one analogue of a metabolite. Chemists can do the job in much the same time (or in less time, depending on the complexity of the molecules), and can also introduce chemical groups that simply don’t occur naturally – which is vital for drug discovery.

Carreira certainly wasn’t dismissing metabolic engineering out of hand – he acknowledged that the field is advancing all the time, and that it undoubtedly has a bright future for making complex organic molecules. But we’re also getting better and better at organic synthesis, so there will always be room for both chemical and biological strategies. Carreira’s 35-deoxy- analogue of Amphotericin B was invaluable in helping to unravel the biological mechanism of action of the parent compound – something that biologists have so far been unable to do alone. So here’s to a future of collaboration with our colleagues in the life sciences.


Andrew Mitchinson (Senior Editor, Nature)