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Mario Molina, Nobel Laureate. Rest In Peace

Prof. Mario Molina was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995, the same year I started my chemistry education at the chemistry school from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM, the same school from where he got his undergraduate diploma. To be a chemistry student in the late nineties in Mexico had Prof. Molina as a sort of mythical reference, something to aspire to, a role model, the sort of representation the Latinx and other underrepresented communities still require and seldom get.

I saw him several times at UNAM, where he’d pack any auditorium almost once a year to talk about various research topics, but I remember distinctly the first time I sort of interacted with him. It was 1997 and I attended my first congress, the 5th North America Chemistry Congress. Minutes before the official inauguration which he was supposed to preside, I caught a glimpse of him in the hallways near the main conference room. Being only 19 years old, I thought it’d be a good idea to chase him, ask for his autograph and a picture. He was kind enough not to brush me off and took just a minute to shake my hand, sign my book of abstracts, and get his picture taken with me. But cameras back then relied on the user to place a roll of film correctly. I did not; so the picture, although it happened, it doesn’t exist. Because of this and other anecdotes, that congress cemented my love for chemistry. I never asked for a second picture in the few subsequent occasions I had the pleasure to hear him talk.

Prof. Molina was an advocate of green and sustainable sources of energies. His work predicted the existence of a hole in the ozone layer and his struggle brought change into the banning of CFCs and other substances which interfere with the replenishment of ozone in the sub-stratosphere. Today, his legacy remains but also do his pending battles in the quest for new policies that favor the use of green alternative forms of energy. May he rest in peace and may we continue his example.

Computational Chemistry from Latin America

The video below is a sad recount of the scientific conditions in Mexico that have driven an enormous amount of brain power to other countries. Doing science is always a hard endeavour but in developing countries is also filled with so many hurdles that it makes you wonder if it is all worth the constant frustration. 

That is why I think it is even more important for the Latin American community to make our science visible, and special issues like this one from the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry goes a long way in doing so. This is not the first time IJQC devotes a special issue to the Comp.Chem. done south of the proverbial border, a full issue devoted to the Mexican Physical Chemistry Meetings (RMFQT) was also published six years ago.

I believe these special issues in mainstream journals are great ways of promoting our work in a collected way that stresses our particular lines of research instead of having them spread a number of journals. Also, and I may be ostracized for this, but I think coming up with a new journal for a specific geographical community represents a lot of effort that takes an enormous amount of time to take off and thus gain visibility. 

For these reasons I’ve been cooking up some ideas for the next RMFQT website. I don’t pretend to say that my colleagues need any shoutouts from my part -I could only be so lucky to produce such fine pieces of research myself- but it wouldn’t hurt to have a more established online presence as a community. 

¡Viva la ciencia Latinoamericana!

Chemistry Makes the Chemical

The compound shown below in figure 1 is listed by Aldrich as 4,5,6,7-tetrahydroindole, but is it really?


Fig 1. An indole?

To a hardcore organic chemist it is clear that this is not an indole but a pyrrole because  the lack of aromaticity in the fused ring gives this molecule the same reactivity as 2,3-diethyl pyrrole.  If you search the ChemSpider database for ‘tetrahydroindole’ the search returns the following compound with the identical chemical formula C8H11N but with a different hydrogenation pattern: 2,3,3a,4-Tetrahydro-1H-indole


Fig 2. Also listed as an indole

The real indole, upon an electrophilic attack, behaves as a free enamine yielding the product shown in figure 3 in which the substitution occurs in position 3. This compound cannot undergo an Aromatic Electrophilic Susbstitution since that would imply the formation of a sigma complex which would disrupt the aromaticity.


On the contrary, the corresponding pyrrole is substituted in position 2


These differences in reactivity towards electrophiles are easily rationalized when we plot their HOMO orbitals (calculated at the M062X/def2TZVP level of theory):

If we calculate the Fukui indexes at the same level of theory we get the highest value for susceptibility towards an electrophilic attack as follows: 0.20 for C(3) in indole and 0.25 for C(2) in pyrrole, consistent with the previous reaction schemes.

So, why is it listed as an indole? why would anyone search for it under that name? Nobody thinks about cyclohexane as 1,3,5-trihydrobenzene. According to my good friend and colleague Dr. Moisés Romero most names for heterocyles are kept even after such dramatic chemical changes due to historical and mnemonic reasons even when the reactivity is entirely different. This is only a nomenclature issue that we have inherited from the times of Hantzsch more than a century ago. We’ve become used to keeping the trivial (or should I say arbitrary) names and further use them as derivations but this could pose an epistemological problem if students cannot recognize which heterocycle presents which reactivity.

So, in a nutshell:

Chemistry makes the chemical and not the structure.

A thing we all know but sometimes is overlooked for the sake of simplicity.

#CompChem – Can Orbitals Be Directly Observed?


New paper in Tetrahedron #CompChem “Why U don’t React?”

Literature in synthetic chemistry is full of reactions that do occur but very little or no attention is payed to those that do not proceed. The question here is what can we learn from reactions that are not taking place even when our chemical intuition tells us they’re feasible? Is there valuable knowledge that can be acquired by studying the ‘anti-driving force’ that inhibits a reaction? This is the focus of a new manuscript recently published by our research group in Tetrahedron (DOI: 10.1016/j.tet.2016.05.058) which was the basis of Guillermo Caballero’s BSc thesis.



It is well known in organic chemistry that if a molecular structure has the possibility to be aromatic it can somehow undergo an aromatization process to achieve this more stable state. During some experimental efforts Guillermo Caballero found two compounds that could be easily regarded as non-aromatic tautomers of a substituted pyridine but which were not transformed into the aromatic compound by any means explored; whether by treatment with strong bases, or through thermal or photochemical reaction conditions.


These results led us to investigate the causes that inhibits these aromatization reactions to occur and here is where computational chemistry took over. As a first approach we proposed two plausible reaction mechanisms for the aromatization process and evaluated them with DFT transition state calculations at the M05-2x/6-31+G(d,p)//B3LYP/6-31+G(d,p) levels of theory. The results showed that despite the aromatic tautomers are indeed more stable than their corresponding non-aromatic ones, a high activation free energy is needed to reach the transition states. Thus, the barrier heights are the first reason why aromatization is being inhibited; there just isn’t enough thermal energy in the environment for the transformation to occur.


But this is only the proximal cause, we went then to search for the distal causes (i.e. the reasons behind the high energy of the barriers). The second part of the work was then the calculation of the delocalization energies and frontier molecular orbitals for the non-aromatic tautomers at the HF/cc-pVQZ level of theory to get insights for the large barrier heights. The energies showed a strong electron delocalization of the nitrogen’s lone pair to the oxygen atom in the carbonyl group. Such delocalization promoted the formation of an electron corridor formed with frontier and close-to-frontier molecular orbitals, resembling an extended push-pull effect. The hydrogen atoms that could promote the aromatization process are shown to be chemically inaccessible.


Further calculations for a series of analogous compounds showed that the dimethyl amino moiety plays a crucial role avoiding the aromatization process to occur. When this group was changed for a nitro group, theoretical calculations yielded a decrease in the barrier high, enough for the reaction to proceed. Electronically, the bonding electron corridor is interrupted due to a pull-pull effect that was assessed through the delocalization energies.

The identity of the compounds under study was assessed through 1H, 13C-NMR and 2D NMR experiments HMBC, HMQC so we had to dive head long into experimental techniques to back our calculations.

Fluorescent Chemosensors for Chloride in Water – Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical

A new publication is now available in which we calculated the binding properties of a fluorescent water-soluble chemosensor for halides which is specially sensitive for chloride. Once again, we were working in collaboration with an experimental group who is currently involved in developing all kinds of sustainable chemosensors.

The electronic structure of the chromophore was calculated at the M06-2X/6-311++G(d,p) level of theory under the SMD solvation model (water) at various pH levels which was achieved simply by changing the protonation and charges upon the ligand. Wiberg bond indexes from the Natural Population Analysis showed strong interactions between the chloride ion and the chromophore. Also, Fukui indexes were calculated in order to find the most probable binding sites. A very interesting feature of this compound is its ability to form a cavity without being a macrocycle! I deem it a cavity because of the intramolecular interactions which prevent the entrance of solvent molecules but that can be reversibly disrupted for the inclusion of an anion. In the figure below you can observe the remarkable quenching effect chloride has on the anion.


A quick look to the Frontier Molecular Orbitals (FMO’s) show that the chloride anion acts as an electron donor to the sensor.

Frontier Molecular Orbitals

Frontier Molecular Orbitals

If you are interested in more details please check: Bazany-Rodríguez, I. J., Martínez-Otero, D., Barroso-Flores, J., Yatsimirsky, A. K., & Dorazco-González, A. (2015). Sensitive water-soluble fluorescent chemosensor for chloride based on a bisquinolinium pyridine-dicarboxamide compound. Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical, 221, 1348–1355.

Thanks to Dr. Alejandro Dorazco from CCIQS for asking me to join him in this project which currently includes some other join ventures in the realm of molecular recognition.

Two more students graduated!

It is with great pleasure that I’d like to announce the thesis defense of Guillermo “Memo” Caballero and Howard Diaz who in past days became the second and third students, respectively, to get their B.Sc. degrees with theses completed at our lab. I want to publicly thank them for their hard work which hasn’t only contributed with a thesis to our library but will soon contribute with research papers to our count.

Guillermo “Memo” Caballero worked on the calculation of a reaction mechanism that cannot happen. He started as a synthetic chemist and when he hit a wall at the lab he thought computational chemistry might help him get synthesis on the right direction. He has proven now that the aromatization process of a substituted glutarimide into the corresponding pyridine can only proceed only if substituents with a very strong electron withdrawing effect are used. For two reaction mechanisms proposed, both of them intramolecular rearrangements and only one of them concerted, the calculated energy barriers to reach for the corresponding transition states (QST2 and QST3 methods used) are higher than a pyrolitic decomposition. Memo found also that the delocalization of the pi electron system and its extent goes a long way into the stabilization of the non-aromatic analogue. At first we wanted to treat this problem as a tautomeric equilibrium but since we cannot observe the aromatic tautomer there is no equilibrium and hence no tautomerism. We are still thinking how to name this correspondence between the two compounds when we submit the corresponding paper. It must be said that Guillermo graduated with the highest honors in a most deserved way.

Howard Diaz worked on the design of molecular blockers for the entrance process of the HIV-1 virus into lymphocytes through the GP120 protein. Six known blockers based on phenyl-indoyl-urea were assessed through docking, the binding site of the GP120 protein was described in terms of the interactions formed with each on these compounds and that served as the basis for what in the end came up to be a 36 compound library of blockers, whose structures were first optimized at the B3LYP/6-31G** level of theory. All the 42 blockers were docked in the binding site of the protein and a thorough conformational search was performed. From this set, lead compounds were selected in terms of their binding energies (first calculated heuristically) and further studied at the Density Functional Theory, B97D/cc-pVTZ in order to study the electronic structure of the blocker when interacting with a selection of residues at the binding site. Interaction energies calculated at the quantum level are consistent with the complex formation but since we had to cut the protein to only a few residues little correlation is found with the first calculation; this is fine and still publishable, I just wish we had a more seamless transition between heuristics and quantum chemical calculations. Wiberg indexes were very low, as consistent with a hydrophobic cavity, and delocalization energies calculated with second order perturbation theory analysis on the Natural Bond Orbitals revealed that the two most important interactions are C-H…π and Cl…π, these two were selected as key parameters in our design of new drugs for preventing the HIV-1 virus to bind lymphocytes-T; now we only need to have them synthesized and tested (anyone interested?).

Thank you guys for all your hard work, it has truly payed off. I’m completely certain that no matter what you do and where you go you will be very successful in your careers and I wish you nothing but the very best. This lab’s doors will always remain open for you.


Elements4D – Exploring Chemistry with Augmented Reality

A bit outside the scope of this blog (maybe), but just too cool to overlook. Augmented reality in chemistry education.

Science and Stuff -

This is a guest post from Samantha Morra of, an advertiser on 

Augmented Reality (AR) blurs the line between the physical and digital world. Using cues or triggers, apps and websites can “augment” the physical experience with digital content such as audio, video and simulations. There are many benefits to using AR in education such as giving students opportunities to interact with items in ways that spark inquiry, experimentation, and creativity. There are a quite a few apps and sites working on AR and its application in education.

Elements4D, an AR app from Daqri, allows students explore chemical elements in a fun way while learning about real-life chemistry. To get started, download Elements4D and print the cubes.

There are 6 physical paper cubes printed with different symbols from the periodic table. It takes a while to cut out and put together the cubes, but it…

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