Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

European Chemistry Congress: Chemical Darwinism

The big tent where we saw the folk dancers was packed this morning for Jean Marie Lehn’s plenary on self-organizing systems. I heard lots of ebullient murmuring on the way out, so I think it went well, though some of it may have been the celebrity-induced glow of those who have just heard a Nobel laureate speak.

The general idea is that if one works hard, one can find molecules that when introduced, get along and immediately start building complex structures on their own. Lehn showed us grids and other cunning structures that had been got up by molecules that recognized each other and then bound predictably.

Much of his work was on those superstructures bound together with metal ions, so that one way to look at his grids was a field of regularly spaced metal ions, potentially useful as a computer chip. So these “supramolecules” are, he said, “a powerful alternative to nanofabrication. Don’t make components, design them to make themselves.”

He also showed how mixed soups of molecules will segregate themselves into structural units—so you’ll have a bunch of double helixes forming alongside a bunch of triple helixes. This relies on recognition, and then selection of the appropriate molecule to fraternize with. In a challenging finale, Lehn wondered if this effect might not represent a kind of “chemical Darwinism.”

His other quoteable moment: “Chemistry is the science of informed matter”.


  1. Report this comment

    Tim Reynolds said:

    Prof Lehn definately has some challenging ideas for future chemistry. Those fortunate to be at the SusChem workshop in Buda on Sunday (thanks for the mention Emma) had a preview of his lecture. My favourite quotes from that one was: “there would be no sustainable life [on Earth] without chemistry”.

  2. Report this comment

    Cate said:

    From the description of his talk, it sounds like Lehn is banging on about the same old stuff – he published some of this over 10 years ago (and hasn’t really done anything interesting with it since – it’s still all just done in solution). Someone needs to tell him to stop trying so hard, he’ll never get the second Nobel that he craves so much. Inventing new terminology and intellectually patenting areas doesn’t win you anything.

  3. Report this comment

    Yannick Comenge said:

    I am Phd in microbiology. Pugwash Member. As a matter of fact, I am green activist. I would like to speak with you Mrs Emma Marris.

    Sincerely yours

    Yannick Comenge