‘Why didn’t we think to do this earlier?’ Chemists thrilled by speedy atomic structures

By Matthew Warren

Organic chemists, make sure you’re sitting comfortably. The structure of small organic molecules, such as those used in drugs, can be deduced in minutes rather than weeks, thanks to a technique that uses beams of electrons to quickly reveal how atoms are arranged.

The technique, called 3D electron diffraction, has been used by some inorganic chemists and material scientists since the mid-2000s to deduce the structure of molecules. But organic chemists, for whom the implications could be transformative, did not adopt it widely.

In mid-October, two papers appeared online describing a way to use the same technique for drugs, making it much faster and easier to work out the structure of these small organic molecules than current techniques allow.

“I think there are a lot of people smacking their heads, saying, “Why didn’t we think to do this earlier?” says John Rubinstein, a structural biologist at the University of Toronto who uses related techniques to study large molecules such as proteins.

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