One pot reaction creates a versatile building block for bioactive molecules

One pot reaction creates a versatile building block for bioactive molecules

Illustration of the new synthetic pathway for Z-functionalized alkenes. Idea: Dr. Sofia Ronikina, University of Groningen. Credit: Stutpak Illustration and Animation, Deventer, The Netherlands

Chemists from the University of Groningen have found a simple way to produce previously inaccessible Z-alkenes, molecules that offer an important synthetic shortcut to the production of bioactive molecules.

Instead of eight to ten synthetic steps to produce these particlesThe new reaction can be performed in three steps without the need for any purification. The key lies in the molecule phosphine, which is commonly used to make metal-containing catalysts but turns out to be the ideal starting point for this chemical reaction. The results are published in Science advances On January 13th.

Organic compounds are versatile. they carbon Atoms can be connected by single, double or triple bonds. Moreover, many biologically important molecules contain chiral centers, which are parts of the molecule that can be in two mirror image positions, comparable to the left and right hand. particles that have double bondchiral center, and the reaction group of structural modifications all next to each other are also important, but chemists have great difficulty making them.


Alkenes are compounds that contain two carbon atoms joined by a double bond. Depicting two carbon atoms horizontally, we can distinguish Z alkenes, where both carbon atoms attached to another carbon on the same side (both pointing up), and E alkenes, where the attached carbons are on opposite sides, (one up and one down). Z-alkenes are unstable because the carbon atoms attached on the same side are forced to be close together.

explains Syuzanna Harutyunyan, professor of homogeneous catalysis at the University of Groningen. “Z-alkenes are very useful, but also very difficult to make.”

The team needed to make the less stable Z alkenes, where the double bond is attached to the chiral carbon center, and more contact to the highly reactive carbon center, which is very difficult.

One pot reaction creates a versatile building block for bioactive molecules

This image shows the formation of Z- and E-alkenes (upper panel) and the one-pot synthesis of Z-functionalized alkenes. Credit: Harutyunian Laboratory, University of Groningen

Reactive salt

Using known synthetic methods, it would take about eight to ten separate steps to create such a structure. Harutyunyan and her team tried to simplify this by starting with a molecule called phosphine. Co-author Roxana Postolach says, “This molecule is commonly used to produce metal-containing catalysts. In previous work, we developed a method for making chiral phosphine, which formed the basis for our new synthetic route to Z-alkenes.”

Harutyunyan says, “We took our phosphine and converted it into a salt. This would allow the creation of a double bond with the Z configuration.”

But this salt is very reactive and all attempts to introduce a double bond have led to a lot of products that scientists didn’t want. “So, we had to find a way to set reactivity,” Postolache explains.

black board

This step required the chalk-and-board approach, which Harutyunyan and her team used to discuss options. A possible solution was found in adding a special group to phosphine to make a different kind of salt. Harutyunyan says, “We figured this should pull electrons away from phosphorus and allow us to fine-tune the reactivity.”

First author Luo Ge took the idea from the blackboard to the laboratory. “We tried to make this idea work and got it right on our first try. It was a pleasant surprise to see our idea really work.” They then optimized the reaction and then used their method to modify the real bioactive compounds.


The big advantage of the new synthetic path is that it takes fewer steps and is essentially a one-pot reaction. It just requires Room temperature For the first step, moderate heating (50-70°C) for salt work, and -78°C for the final step for double bond work with Z formation.

Joint first author Esther Sinnema says, “By using our phosphine as a synthetic tool, rather than a catalyst, we opened up all kinds of possibilities. We could make a large number of new heterocyclic Z-alkenes and use the method to modify bioactive compounds.” In the paper, we present 35 different molecules synthesized using our method.

“We expect our study to pave the way for using commercially available simple alkenes to make more complex functional alkenes via phosphine and salt mediators,” says Harutyunyan.

more information:
Luo Ge et al, Enantio- and Z-Selective Synthesis of Functional Alkenes Bearing a Tricyclic Stereophilic Centre, Science advances (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adf8742.

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