What Is Combinatorial Synthesis?

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  • Written By: Christian Petersen
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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Combinatorial synthesis is a technique used by chemists to create a large number of related or similar chemical compounds for the purpose of comparing them. By compiling data on such a group of compounds, which is called a combinatory library, a chemist can then use this data to select specific compounds for further research. Much of this type of work is performed virtually, using sophisticated software, allowing chemists to quickly amass information on every possible compound that can be created with a desired base or a set of components or molecules. Promising compounds can then be selected and synthesised for testing in the laboratory.

Advancements in computer technology have greatly advanced combinatorial synthesis techniques and have made it possible for chemists to quickly create combinatorial libraries with very large numbers of similar but distinct compounds. Some databases of this type can contain millions of different compounds. The idea of combinatorial synthesis was first developed in the latter half of the 20th century but became a widely used tool in the 1990s with the rapid advancement of computing power available to researchers.


Pharmaceutical companies are one of the prime users of this technique, which allows for potentially useful drugs to be discovered and selected for the earliest phases of testing at a much quicker rate than was previously possible. By using sophisticated software, researchers are able to virtually synthesize entire families of compounds in seconds that would otherwise take years if performed in the laboratory. This software can also help them select certain compounds for further testing and for synthesis in real-life conditions. In this way, many new drugs can be developed and introduced for use much faster than would otherwise be possible.

Other fields of chemistry can also use the principles of combinatorial synthesis. Researchers in many academic and industrial fields use this technique. The process can be used for developing new polymers, petroleum products, and insecticides. Researchers at the University of Berkeley in California have used combinatorial synthesis to develop a whole family of metallic compounds called magnetoreactive compounds. These compounds have the property of varying conductivity when subjected to certain magnetic fields.

This technique is still relatively new and will, undoubtedly, provide a great boost to research in a number of areas in the 21st century. Almost any field that relies on chemistry in any way for developing new compounds can benefit from combinatorial synthesis. A chemist or researcher can use software to help find compounds with desired characteristics or properties in a fraction of the time needed to perform the same research by other methods.


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