European Chemistry Congress: Chemical Darwinism

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The big tent where we saw the folk dancers was packed this morning for Jean Marie Lehn’s plenary on self-organizing systems. I heard lots of ebullient murmuring on the way out, so I think it went well, though some of it may have been the celebrity-induced glow of those who have just heard a Nobel laureate speak.

The general idea is that if one works hard, one can find molecules that when introduced, get along and immediately start building complex structures on their own. Lehn showed us grids and other cunning structures that had been got up by molecules that recognized each other and then bound predictably.

Much of his work was on those superstructures bound together with metal ions, so that one way to look at his grids was a field of regularly spaced metal ions, potentially useful as a computer chip. So these “supramolecules” are, he said, “a powerful alternative to nanofabrication. Don’t make components, design them to make themselves.”

He also showed how mixed soups of molecules will segregate themselves into structural units—so you’ll have a bunch of double helixes forming alongside a bunch of triple helixes. This relies on recognition, and then selection of the appropriate molecule to fraternize with. In a challenging finale, Lehn wondered if this effect might not represent a kind of “chemical Darwinism.”

His other quoteable moment: “Chemistry is the science of informed matter”.

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