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Instant insight: Systems chemistry
19 December 2007
Sijbren Otto and Fred Ludlow at the University of Cambridge, UK, call on chemists to embrace complexity and take up the emerging discipline of systems chemistry
Complex systems are everywhere, from stock markets and the web to ecosystems and metabolic pathways. The fields of biological and atmospheric chemistry deal with complex systems out of necessity, but only recently have synthetic chemical networks begun to appear. Modern analytical techniques have turned systems, which would once have been an intractable mess, into a mine of data which, with the right tools, can be converted into new knowledge.
Systems chemistry deals with properties that result from the interaction between the components in a network, rather than any one species acting individually
For networks operating under kinetic control the history of the system is important, and this creates the possibility of emergent temporal and spatial patterns. One example of this, and a favourite at chemistry open days, is the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction. When stirred, the concentrations of various intermediates oscillate periodically, but when left unstirred, moving chemical fronts (waves) can be seen. These waves are not the property of any individual species in the solution, but instead of the interlinked and auto-catalytic reactions occurring simultaneously.
The ability of synthetic chemical networks to mimic some of the features of much more complex, but fragile, biological networks makes them ideal model systems, from which we can hope to gain some insight into the common organisational principles behind a range of complex networks. This may in turn lead to a better understanding of how to modify biological systems effectively, engineer more complicated functional systems, or even provide us with clues to the origin of life.
Read Sijbren Otto and Fred Ludlow's Tutorial Review on 'Systems chemistry' in issue 1, 2008 of Chem. Soc. Rev.
Link to journal article
Also of interest
Scientists in California have constructed a microfluidic device that can synthesise DNA with excellent efficiency.
Swedish researchers have devised an efficient and practical way to make dendrimers.