In the interview to the correspondent of Gazeta.Ru, the Director of N.D. Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry RAS Mikhail Egorov talked about trends in design and studies of molecular systems in organic chemistry, about viewing water micro channels under an electron microscope, and about the program for upbringing lab leaders starting from school age.
In 2014, the Russian Science Foundation (RSF) supported 16 five-year comprehensive scientific research programs focused on the development of scientific research and educational organizations with a view to build up human resource capacity in science and foster global level R&D. Each program’s funding is 750 million rubles (for a 5-year period).
— Would you, please, give an outline of the prime objective of the ZIOC Complex Research Program supported by the RSF?
— Today a global trend in chemistry is associated with the design and study of molecular systems of different complexity that have valuable practical properties. These systems have already found applications in key sectors of economy such as pharmaceutics, oil & gas, medicine, energy, defense, and many other sectors fundamental for national security.
That is why the overall goal of the RSF-funded Complex Research Program is the targeted design of new organic and hybrid molecular systems for critical technologies to the benefit of national security and sustainable development.
— What are the key research areas under the program?
— There are four complementary research areas: stereo- and enantioselective synthesis of new nitrogen-oxygen systems – donors of nitrogen oxide and semiproducts for new neuromediators and enzyme inhibitors; bioorganic molecular systems for addressing priority issues in medicine and in biological and environmental monitoring; new organic-inorganic hybrid molecular systems and materials with the high-order organization for applications in the catalysis, environmental science and energy sector; studies of complex molecular systems and chemical reaction mechanisms using a set of advanced physicochemical methods.
The systems under study cover a broad scope of molecular complexity: from relatively “simple” nitrogen-oxygen systems to complex bioorganic and organic-inorganic hybrids.
It is obvious that the successful implementation of the planned projects is unfeasible without powerful modern equipment. It will help both credibly identify the structure (including spatial) of newly synthesized molecular and hybrid systems and thoroughly study mechanisms of their formation, including by the direct spectroscopic detection of short-lived intermediates. Of special note is that ZIOC RAS is equipped with unique instruments available at its Shared Use Facilities Center.
These are cutting-edge NMR spectrometers and mass spectrometers, a full line of electron microscopes (scanning and transmission) with a set of detectors for solving complex structural problems, what can be only done by skilled professionals.
Besides, methodologies developed by ZIOC researchers have greatly extended capabilities of this unique equipment towards the in-depth investigation of hybrid molecular systems and mechanisms of chemical reactions, which resulted in important research findings published in high impact-factor journals and recognized internationally.
It is worth mentioning that all expensive instruments are in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and are always fully loaded with samples. Some of them showed record-breaking results. For example, a few years ago the millionth NMR spectrum was recorded at ZIOC. Our British colleagues managed to achieve such result only two years after. In fact, we can record up to 1000 NMR spectra per day!
— Could you, please, give a vivid example of the most interesting findings under the Program?
— Each area of research under the Program outstands with its spectacular result. For instance, a significant development without doubt is a synthesis of the unique nitrogen-oxygen system that used to be hypothetic for a long time – tetrazino-tetrazine-tetraoxide (TTTO).
The backbone of this mirror-symmetric molecule consists of two carbon atoms and eight nitrogen atoms. Four oxygen atoms are positioned so that they maximally stabilize the molecule. The existence of this compound was theoretically predicted in ZIOC some time ago and a number of theoretical results published abroad over the past years have proven that TTTO stands among the most powerful nitrogen-rich substances and has exceptionally high energy characteristics.
However the attempts of foreign chemists to synthesize TTTO were failing. The efforts of ZIOC researchers had proven successful and the results were published in Angewandte Chemie (IF 11.7) under the category 'VIP article’.
Another finding to be mentioned falls at the field of biomolecular systems, namely third-generation pneumococcal conjugate vaccines. Conjugates of synthetic oligosaccharides with model protein were synthesized. Tetrasaccharide conjugate with model protein injected to mice induced a one-hundred-percent protection against their subsequent infection with a lethal dose of S. Pneumoniae live culture. The product exhibits same activity as the component CRM197 of vaccine Prevnar 13 (Pfizer) and paves the way to a Russian innovative drug.
Our researchers designed hybrid nanomaterials for desulfurization of natural gas and liquid hydrocarbon mixtures. The developed catalyst –adsorbent at least 5000-fold reduces the content of sulfur compounds and exceeds conventional zeolites by orders of magnitude by all parameters.
Finally, I should make mention of an original procedure of filming chemical reactions with the participation of nanoparticles that was developed under the fourth research activity of the Program. Video monitoring of the biomass conversion was successfully performed directly inside of the electron microscope and influence of system’s nanostructuring on the reaction yield and selectivity was revealed. The research was communicated in Angewandte Chemie. Totally, this top international journal published four papers from ZIOC based on results obtained under the Program in 2016.
Also, I’d like to pinpoint the Award For a New Approach and Outstanding Contribution to Development of New Standards in Electron Microscopy Applications in Chemistry of the leading Japanese company Hitachi High-Technologies granted to the leader of the fourth research activity within the Program Prof. Valentine Ananikov for the extensive electron spectroscopy application in the studies of organic molecular systems.
— What has been planned in the framework of the Program?
— We have set two key objectives from the very beginning. The first is to find new growth points and new promising research areas to be furthered, which would in time change the Institute’s workstyle. Another objective is to create, on the ZIOC basis, an interdisciplinary research center for organic and hybrid molecular systems.
— Are many young research fellows involved in the Program activities?
— The Program gave an impetus to the inflow of young researchers. In 2013, before the Program, the Institute had had 129 full-timeresearch fellows under the age of 39 plus 57 postgraduate and 157 undergraduate students, whereas in 2015 those figures increased to 155, 69 and 226, accordingly. For more than 25 years, the Institute has been implementing its system of continuous chemical education ‘high school – university – PhD school – DSc school’.
The Moscow Chemical Lyceum (high school) and the Higher Chemical College RAS (university) established by the ZIOC initiative constitute the core of the system. Sound Program funding by RSF helps attract more students and postgraduates and, moreover, has given rise to a postdoc academic program – a lacking link in the chain of continuous chemical education and a starting point for fast rejuvenation of the Institute.