Texas A&M University chemist Daniel Romo and his team have developed a quick and efficient method of creating one type of complex carbon framework commonly found in pharmaceutical drugs and other natural products.

The research, published last month in the journal Nature Chemistry, describes not only the construction of complex five-membered rings from two-carbon and three-carbon pieces, but also how to do so with a method that uses commodity chemicals -- essentially chemicals that are relatively cheap and available in large quantities -- and as single-mirror images, a feature characteristic of some organic molecules that can dramatically alter their biological properties.

"Ideally, people will see this method as a very practical, efficient method," said Romo, a professor since 1993 in the Department of Chemistry. "It could potentially be applied to the synthesis of the next generation of drugs, or to make existing drugs more efficiently."

Chemists have good ways of making six-membered carbocyclic rings, but creating five-membered rings that are found in many drugs is trickier. It's a dilemma that is of importance in organic synthesis these days, Romo said.

"We could just about make any organic compound you could dream up," Romo said. "But now the question has become, 'How efficiently can you make that compound?' This method that we published is a step in that direction. More generally, we're providing new tools for making useful molecules to probe what's going on inside a cell."

The research highlights a shift away from using metal-based catalysts in favor of organic, non-metal-based molecules. The use of organocatalysts is a burgeoning area, Romo said, and the interest in it is partly fueled by the greater emphasis on green chemistry and developing compounds that leave lighter traces of pollution.

Romo authored the paper in collaboration with several graduate students in his Texas A&M laboratory, including Gang Liu (now a research scientist at MD Anderson), Morgan E. Shirley, Khoi N. Van and Rae Lynn McFarlin (now a chemistry teacher at Central High School in San Angelo, Texas). While it represents his commitment to basic science, Romo also works in the realm of applied, interdisciplinary science that links research and industry.

In 2010 Romo began serving as director of a project that connects scientists from across the Texas A&M University System and beyond who are interested in natural products research. Called the Natural Products LINCHPIN Laboratory -- or Laboratory for Innovative Chemistry and Natural Products-Based Interdisciplinary Drug Discovery -- the lab is equipped with specialized instrumentation that enables chemical synthesis, derivatization methods, isolation and purification of bioactive natural products and related small molecules.

"We try to do basic research that has a direct practical application, and the LINCHPIN lab is really an expression of my more applied side," Romo said. "We're working with biologists and researchers with an interest in development potential medicines, and we assist in discovering new enzymes and proteins in the body using natural products-based probes that could then be targeted for therapeutics."

Romo began his career in academia at Texas A&M as a chemistry major with the goal of becoming an orthodontist, but he quickly discovered a knack and passion for organic chemistry and synthesis, in particular. He left Texas A&M in 1986 with bachelor's degree in chemistry and a minor in biology before earning a doctorate in chemistry from Colorado State University and then conducting postdoctoral research at Harvard University. He came back to Aggieland in 1993 as an assistant professor, moving up the ranks to full professor and earning induction into the College of Science Academy of Distinguished Former Students in 2012.

"I was fascinated by the idea of being able to dream up new molecules and the methods to make them," Romo said. "It's almost like putting a puzzle together. I just always liked the idea of being able to piece together something complex and potentially quite useful."

To view the complete paper, go to http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v5/n12/full/nchem.1788.html.

For more information about research conducted in Romo's lab, visit http://www.chem.tamu.edu/rgroup/romo/.

To read a previous feature on Romo's work with the LINCHPIN lab and the Undergraduate MiniPharma Project he initiated, go to http://www.science.tamu.edu/articles/906/.

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Contact: Vimal Patel, (979) 845-7246 or vpatel@science.tamu.edu or Daniel Romo, (979) 845-9571 or romo@chem.tamu.edu

Patel Vimal

  • Better Building Blocks

    This image features two basics -- children's building bricks and a mirror -- to illustrate how Texas A&M chemist Daniel Romo and his team puts together three-carbon and two-carbon atoms to make five-membered rings (a pentagon) and also how they make one of two possible mirror images. (Credit: Mikail Abbasov, graduate student and Romo research group member, Texas A&M Department of Chemistry.)

  • Daniel Romo

    As a senior in high school, Daniel Romo had an independent study class in which he had free rein to try different experiments he found in the literature. In college he found that the innovation and creativity required to make molecules in organic chemistry played right into his interests. "It was all history from there," he says. Read more about Romo and his past and present motivations here.

© Texas A&M University. To request use of any of our photographs for educational use or to view additional options from our archive, please contact the College of Science Communications Office.

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