Chemical Sleuthing In Santa Fe

Chemistry is everywhere. Even in the desert. That landscape, both beautiful and desolate, is where I might expect poor, unsuspecting crooks to be “taken for ride” in a mob movie, never to be heard from again. But it isn’t exactly where I’d expect to see a giant ball-and-stick molecular model.

Daylight's sculpture, albeit with a bit of graffiti. Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

Nonetheless, on a recent trip to Santa Fe and its surrounding arid land, that’s exactly what I found. On the way back from a hike in the desert, a flash of black and yellow caught my eye. There, on the side of the highway, at the outskirts of town, was a large molecular sculpture. And it was definitely a molecule—the carbons were black, the sulfurs were yellow, oxygen was red, and nitrogen was blue. Like aliens leaving behind crop circles, chemists MUST have been here. No one else assigns colors to atoms like that. Of course I stopped. How could I not? All of my chemistry-nerd neurons were firing. As I scurried up the small hill that the sculpture sits upon, I noticed the building beside it: Daylight Chemical Information Systems. Unfortunately, the firm was closed for the day, but some more brilliant sleuthing revealed a clear-as-day plaque on the ground that read, “Cognition Enhancer.” Huh. It’s not surprising that I couldn’t immediately identify the molecule from the sculpture: I’m more of a physical chemist by training and would be hard-pressed to draw even the structure for a common molecule such as caffeine by memory. What is interesting, however, is that the molecular formula I scribbled on a sheet of paper didn’t pick up any obvious hits in a Google search.

Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

So I did what any Jessica Fletcher wannabe would do. No, I didn’t pick Daylight’s locks and rifle through its files. I waited until I returned from my trip to call the company and perform a SciFinder search. Turns out that Daylight, established in 1986, develops software tools to handle chemical information. C&EN wrote about the firm way back when in 2005. One of the firm’s products, SMILES, is a linguistic algorithm for representing molecular structures in a line notation that is easily manageable by computers. For instance, the SMILES for the sculpture is CC1OC2(CC31SCCS3)CN4CCC2CC4. Daylight has now moved on to develop a platform, called DayPort, for managing knowledge in the life sciences. But at the time Daylight was constructing its building in Santa Fe, in 1999, it was looking for a way to represent its vision artistically, says CEO Yosef Taitz. In the same way that the firm aims to “provide tools to enhance the thought process” in drug discovery and make it possible for scientists to speak the same language, the sculpture is of a molecule that “enhances” cognition, Taitz says. It doesn’t hurt that the structure is bottom-heavy and therefore has a solid base for standing up to Santa Fe’s famous desert winds either. The artist, Steve Kline of New Orleans, is a longtime friend of Taitz’s. Kline ensured that the bond angles were “chemistry accurate,” Taitz says, and had the idea to use marine buoys for the atoms rather than build everything entirely from scratch.

Structure as rendered by a physical chemist. Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

Alright, alright, so what IS the molecule, already? It was a solid drug candidate back when the sculpture was commissioned, Taitz says. But unfortunately, it didn’t become a blockbuster drug, so it doesn’t really have a name. The molecule was patented, however, as a spiroheterocycle that binds to acetylcholine receptors in nerve cells. Despite its shortcomings in cognition, the molecule does please the eye as a gargantuan sculpture. “It’s visible from the air,” Taitz says. That’s something for Santa Fe, a city that is a mecca for sculptors all over the U.S.

Author: Lauren Wolf

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