The CNRS Institute of Chemistry welcomes Richmond Sarpong as the Ambassador in Chemical Sciences
On June 11th 2023*, Richmond Sarpong will start a series of lectures in several French CNRS laboratories as the Ambassador in Chemical Sciences in France*. As a Professor of Chemistry at the University of California Berkeley (USA), Richmond Sarpong‘s research is dedicated to the development of new powerful tools and strategies for the synthesis of natural products. He tells us all about this subject.
- What drove you to go into the field of natural product synthesis?
I grew up in Africa and saw the awesome power of organic molecules produced by living organisms (natural products) to cure disease. I also note that about half of the drugs currently on the market are inspired by natural molecules. Many people are familiar with penicillin, which is a quintessential natural product. I was particularly impressed by the effect produced by the drug “ivermectin” in substantially reducing the high number of cases of blindness around Ghana’s rivers, my country of origin. Ivermectin is synthesized in the laboratory from a secondary metabolite called avermectin. This metabolite, produced by a bacterium, was first extracted from the soil in Japan by Satoshi Omura, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this discovery. I wanted to understand how molecules like ivermectin acted to cure diseases and I promised myself to learn everything I could about this field. At first, I thought that a good way to do this would be to become a doctor. But I realized that while doctors could impact the lives of thousands of people over the course of their careers, being able to imagine and produce a desired molecule to treat a disease could have an even greater impact. For these reasons, I decided to specialize in organic synthesis which would allow me to acquire the best expertise to modify in the most efficient way possible active principles extracted from living organisms to improve their performance. More than anything else, it was the desire to advance a field of research contributing to the maintenance and improvement of human health that prompted me to embark on the synthesis of natural substances.
- What do you think will be the most important development in your field in 5, 10- and 25-years’ time?
Organic chemistry, which is at the heart of the biosyntheses carried out by living organisms, took form almost 200 years ago. The first total synthesis of urea, a naturally occurring product, by Frederich Wohler in 1828, is often noted as marking the beginning of this field of research. One would thus expect that it has now reached its full maturity. I do not share this feeling, and I even think that it is at the dawn of a major revolution. Over the past two centuries, the field has focused on new ways to couple different fragments - that is, to create new chemical bonds. However, the process of building molecules still remains a source of many uncertainties and success is still not guaranteed. Very low yields of the desired product are sometimes obtained, with the parallel formation of numerous side-products which are not always easy to eliminate. Every chemist's dream would be to design an infallible theoretical synthesis scheme, able to remove all uncertainties, and follow it with a 100% success rate. I imagine that in the next few years, artificial intelligence will be able to analyze the past 200 years of synthesis effectively to be able to sketch out completely reliable reaction protocols. Advances in machine learning and tuning of all variables relevant to organic synthesis are continually emerging. In the United States, the National Science Foundation Center for Computer Assisted Synthesis (NSF CCAS), of which my laboratory is a member, is one such entity that concentrates its efforts on this goal.
A second line of thought concerns the way in which we give the molecules we synthesize specific properties (called functions), such as biological function. There is no doubt that in the next few years, we will see the appearance of new methods to break carbon-carbon, carbon-nitrogen, carbon-oxygen bonds which, once coupled with the advances made in controlling the creation of new bonds, will allow us to build organic molecules with specific functions in a more direct way.
- As a CNRS ambassador of the Chemical Sciences*, what are you most looking forward to in your conference tour?
I had the chance to visit France on several occasions for conferences such as the meeting of the French American Chemical Society in Avignon (2014), the annual congress of the Société Chimique de France in Paris (2015) or the GECO-59 meeting in Caen (2018), where I was able to interact with inspiring, established personalities, talented and promising professors, and young researchers. What I appreciated the most in these interactions with my French colleagues was their appreciation of the big picture context of their work and the questions that research perpetually generates. The choice of questioning that guides the orientation of our work is essential because, when resources, human and financial, are limited, we must prioritize only the most important activities.
I therefore look forward to discussing with them again on the occasion of this tour to try to best meet the many societal challenges facing the whole world, especially everything related to health. Many of the solutions to these challenges will be developed, even initiated, by our young, dynamic and curious colleagues at the doctoral and university (undergraduate) level. It is also with them that I look forward to forging lasting collaborations centered on these common objectives.
(*) In 2019, CNRS Institute of Chemistry has initiated a program called “Ambassadors of Chemical Sciences in France”. Its ambition is to give prestigious foreign researchers an opportunity to visit a series of French laboratories active in their field. These visits not only include top-notch conferences by the ambassador, but are also a good opportunity to establish preliminary contacts and foster international collaborations for the visited French laboratories.
Rédacteur : CCdM
Conference tour schedule
Date City Contact person & Hosting institution
13/06/2023 Rouen Thomas Castanheiro & Hélène Beucher
Laboratoire de chimie organique, bioinorganique,
réactivité et analyse
15/06/2023 Paris Louis Fensterbank
Institut parisien de chimie moléculaire
19/6/2023 Strasbourg Frédéric Leroux
Laboratoire d’innovation moléculaire et applications
21/6/2023 Marseille Yoann Coquerel & Hervé Clavier
Institut des sciences moléculaires de Marseille
23/6/2023 Bordeaux Yannick Landais
Institut des sciences moléculaires