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Rare tree provides key to greener chemistry

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Posted June 5, 2013

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A rare tree found in Malaysia and Borneo holds the secret to greener chemical production, according to researchers from the Research School of Chemistry.

The research team, led by Professor Michael Sherburn and Dr Andrew Lawrence from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry and Biotechnology at ANU, have created a new, environmentally friendly method to replicate molecules found in the Medang tree.

These molecules, known as kingianins, have shown promise as a lead in anti-cancer drug development, but research has been hampered due to the vanishingly small quantities that can be extracted from the Medang tree.

“Kingianins have complex architectures, which would be very difficult to make using conventional chemistry,” said Professor Sherburn. “Not only are we able to synthesise them but, more importantly, we discovered a more efficient method that can be applied to making a whole range of other complex molecules.”

The team used a technique called biomimicry to mimic the chemical processes that operate in the Medang tree to construct kingianins using less materials, energy and time, and creating less chemical waste than previous methods.

“The kingianins we produce in the laboratory are indistinguishable from those produced by the tree and now that we have optimised the method it can be easily applied by others who wish to make similar molecules more efficiently,” said Dr Lawrence.

“Our work shows that methods such as biomimicry can solve supply problems that hamper medical research into promising but complex molecules, and reduce the environmental impact at the same time,” said Professor Sherburn.

The researchers were surprised to discover that the tree’s process for making the kingianin molecules involved free radicals.

“Free radicals are well known to break down biological molecules,” said Dr Lawrence. “Our work shows that nature has harnessed free radicals to create rather than destroy.”

This research was funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council. It is published in the leading international chemistry journal, Angewandte Chemie.

Source: Australian National University

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