Organic molecules could soon be created from scratch by utilizing a new variety of 3D printer that can manufacture chemicals from constituent atoms.

Drug development, as well as the creation of new dyes and chemicals depends on the creation of novel organic molecules. Until now, the process for creating these chemicals was time-consuming and difficult.

A new 3D printer is able to create custom organic chemicals from tiny building blocks of molecules, placing them together like pieces of a puzzle. Already, around 200 of these basic pieces can be used in the printer, and thousands of others could, theoretically, be created for the machine. Put together, the new 3D printer would be able to merge these pieces into billions of different organic molecules. Each of the building blocks contains a pair of connectors, which allows them to be linked together into more complex molecules.

Custom organic molecules could be designed to fight disease and infection, revolutionize material science, or create new products and materials never before seen on Earth.

A single automated system was used to create new simple, small, organic chemicals in 14 chemical classes. Such small molecules are essential in medicine, solar cells, LED's, and other applications. In order to develop new molecules, chemists must currently select starting materials, then proceed through a series of chemical reactions to slowly build up the desired molecules, piece by piece. This process represents a bottleneck in development, which could be overcome using the new printer.

"The vision is that anybody could go to a website, pick the building blocks they want, instruct their assembly through the web, and the small molecules would get synthesized and shipped," Martin Burke, a chemist from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign said.

This new invention could revolutionize testing of organic chemicals by making the production of novel chemicals simple, quick and inexpensive. Although Burke's dream of mail-order custom molecules is not yet possible, this new invention represents a large step toward developing such technology.

Protein-like chemicals in human and animal bodies, as well as in plants, could be modified to replace missing proteins in bodies, in order to treat diseases and disorders. A 3D printer able to create custom-designed organic molecules could, therefore, treat the underlying cause of many health issues.

The idea of creating small organic molecules by piecing together tiny building blocks was inspired by a similar process in biological systems.

For the first time in history, people who are not research scientists - even members of the general public - will be able to easily experiment with organic molecules designed for any given purpose.

Development of the new 3D printer for organic molecules is published in the journal Science.

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