Elucidating the emergent properties of natural products
Emergence is the phenomenon by which novel properties arise from interactions of simpler fragments which lack that property at a given level of hierarchical complexity. The central challenge posed by emergence is exemplified by a simple geometric analogy: Given 12 line segments, is it possible to predict the existence of a cube in a world where cubes are unknown? Most likely, yes, as there are a finite number of ways the segments could be arranged, and the cube would be one possibility among a tractable range of structures. However in chemical systems, emergent properties are difficult if not impossible to predict, even when very detailed information about the interacting fragments is available. This emergent complexity is inherent to natural systems; analyzing complex natural products without considering their emergent phenomena typically fails as an approach to identifying the most interesting functional features of these molecules. Put another way, top-down analytical approaches to complexity are insufficient, perhaps due to the fact that nature typically employs a bottom-up evolutionary approach to realize novel properties. Therefore, our laboratory is working to formalize a study of emergence in bioactive natural products, with the ultimate goal of connecting the modular, evolved chemical reactivity within a natural product with cellular phenotype. Studies of this nature enrich our understanding of structure, bonding and reactivity in complex settings, motivate advances in synthetic strategy and methodology, and provide a blueprint for the creation of novel molecules with desired, complex properties, with implications for human health.
A detailed discussion of emergence in chemistry can be found here.
A discussion framed in the context of our own work can be found here.