Apr 19, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

Intricate Organic Molecules—Yeah, We Can 3D Print That

Mar 16, 2015 07:39 PM EDT

As a researcher, often relegated to a lab somewhere, sometimes it's quite difficult to come across the supplies you need. Let's say that you're a botanist looking to investigate the herbal properties of a root known only to the forests of Brazil. Unless you've got a great international dealer, who's willing break a few laws to import that plant for you, you've likely got a lengthy journey on your hands every time that you need to stock up. 

Or perhaps you're a neurobiologist looking to isolate endocanibinoids from human brains. Any volunteers to offer their brains up for study? You're not likely to find any takers, but now thanks to some researchers at the University of Illinois, you may just be able to print your own. That's right, print. In what the researchers are calling the next step in 3D-printing, with a version specifically designed to tailor to researchers, University of Illinois chemists led by lead researcher Martin Burke have develop a machine that can systematically synthesize thousands of different molecules basically from scratch. With only a couple of starter chemicals, and the rather large machine, researchers could one day synthesize their own organic molecules, and further study the effects of many well-known medicines as well.

In the study published this week in the journal Science, the chemists are saying that not only will this invention alter the way we do research, but it might also help us find some cures potentially down the line.

"There are many molecules in nature with some extraordinary natural properties, that are incredibly hard to make and just aren't available to be purchased in a lab supply catalog" Burke says. "The general assumption has long been that you need a custom strategy to build each molecule, especially if you're trying to automate the process. But we've demonstrated that you can use the same system to create radically different molecules."

"You just need to modulate a step-by-step process."

But the true novelty in the machine lies in its ability to print out rather specific molecular structures. While it may not seem like much on the level of appearances, small alterations to the shapes of organic molecules and proteins can have some very serious implications on the functional level. And since researchers would be able to start from scratch, not only could they build the molecules that they'd like to print, but also print similar variations that could feasibly be derived through evolutionary changes, and see what implications time and other stress factors could have on function.

Want to learn more about how Burke and his team of researchers came to crux of their invention?

Check out the study and an exclusive feature published in the journal Science here.

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