Guided by artificial intelligence and powered by a robotic platform, a system developed by MIT researchers moves a step closer to automating the production of small molecules that could be used in medicine, solar energy, and polymer chemistry.
The system, described in the August 8 issue of Science, could free up bench chemists from a variety of routine and time-consuming tasks, and may suggest possibilities for how to make new molecular compounds, according to the study co-leaders Klavs F. Jensen, the Warren K. Lewis Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Timothy F. Jamison, the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Chemistry and associate provost at MIT.
The technology “has the promise to help people cut out all the tedious parts of molecule building,” including looking up potential reaction pathways and building the components of a molecular assembly line each time a new molecule is produced, says Jensen.
“And as a chemist, it may give you inspirations for new reactions that you hadn’t thought about before,” he adds.
Other MIT authors on the Science paper include Connor W. Coley, Dale A. Thomas III, Justin A. M. Lummiss, Jonathan N. Jaworski, Christopher P. Breen, Victor Schultz, Travis Hart, Joshua S. Fishman, Luke Rogers, Hanyu Gao, Robert W. Hicklin, Pieter P. Plehiers, Joshua Byington, John S. Piotti, William H. Green, and A. John Hart.
From inspiration to recipe to finished product
The new system combines three main steps. First, software guided by artificial intelligence suggests a route for synthesizing a molecule, then expert chemists review this route and refine it into a chemical “recipe,” and finally the recipe is sent to a robotic platform that automatically assembles the hardware and performs the reactions that build the molecule.
Coley and his colleagues have been working for more than three years to develop the open-source software suite that suggests and prioritizes possible synthesis routes. At the heart of the software are several neural network models, which the researchers trained on millions of previously published chemical reactions drawn from the Reaxys and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office databases. The software uses these data to identify the reaction transformations and conditions that it believes will be suitable for building a new compound.
“It helps makes high-level decisions about what kinds of intermediates and starting materials to use, and then slightly more detailed analyses about what conditions you might want to use and if those reactions are likely to be successful,” says Coley.
“One of the primary motivations behind the design of the software is that it doesn’t just give you suggestions for molecules we know about or reactions we know about,” he notes. “It can generalize to new molecules that have never been made.”
Image Credit: Connor Coley, Felice Frankel