Organic Chemistry in "Real Life"

Organic chemistry really is pretty stupid!

Although it is amazing that chemists can do so many reactions with a very high level of control over regiochemistry and stereochemistry, organic chemists are WAAAAY behind nature when it comes to synthesizing molecules.

Let's look at Reserpine as an example. Reserpine is a molecule that was isolated from the roots of certain plants that was historically found to have medicinal benefits. It is found in the plant because the plant synthesizes it from the amino acid tryptophan. In 1958, Reserpine was synthesized by R.B. Woodard and his students at Harvard. Woodard's synthesis took 18 steps and included the following reagents:
metallic zinc

The synthesis of Reserpine in the 1950's was pretty significant, but much more complex syntheses have been performed since then, I just chose Reserpine as an relatively simple example to keep the reagent list above short, believe it or not!

Reserpine is an anti-psychotic drug, and so being able to synthesize it in the lab is important since it is hard to isolate enough of a useful drug from plants.

But LOOK at some of the reagents that are required! The ones with Cr and Os and CH2N2 are highly toxic and dangerous, for example, and nature does the synthesis using only biomolecules that contain only earth-abundant atoms such as C, H, N, O and occasionally S. Chemists ned to use highly reactive reagents, sledgehammers, while nature does it simply in mainly water as the solvent and without much that is toxic. You can eat a lot of what is in many plants, but you don't want to eat most of what is on that reagent list above!

The same thing happens in geochemistry, i.e. chemistry that occurs below the surface of the earth. There is hardly any Cr, Os etc below the earth, the earth does organic chemistry also in water as the solvent and with minerals that contain only common elements such as O, Fe etc.

So what we do is pretty primitive compared to nature. Don't take this the wrong way, what Woodward and his students did was fantastic science, Woodward was a genius and organic chemists do lost of amazing things, but we have a way to go to beat nature!