Seeing the invisible

Chemistry is the art of seeing what is invisible. Many students came up to me or the laboratory aide and pronounced that their spice steam distillation had produced “nothing.” What they meant was they could not detect anything in their beaker with their eyesight. Their noses, however, could detect the odor of their essential oil. From this we can conclude that the olfactory sensory apparatus is a more sensitive chemical detector in some instances that the optic sensory organ. It occurs to me that a lot of what we do in chemistry is sensing something that is not visible to the naked eye. Chemists use an array of chemical analysis methods to separate (chromatography) and detect (spectroscopy) individual chemical compounds. Interestingly, for natural product extracts, it seems like the more sensitive the detection method – the more compounds are detected. This brings up the philosophical question: “With and infinitely sensitive detection method will we observe and infinite number of compounds?” Even in this age of metabolomics research, the number of compounds contained, or potentially contained, in a living organism is difficult to determine. Hundreds of compounds can be detected with GC with a very low level of separation. At the end of more separation steps will there be thousands? My graduate advisor, the late Edward Leete, once said, “every plant contains every compound.” It is just a matter of improving the separation and detection to prove his statement right or wrong. I would also extend this concept to chemical reactions. If we were to look as closely at reaction mixtures as we do natural extracts we would find a myriad of “side products” present in every reaction mixture.

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