Cookies disclaimer

I agree Our site saves small pieces of text information (cookies) on your device in order to deliver better content and for statistical purposes. You can disable the usage of cookies by changing the settings of your browser. By browsing our website without changing the browser settings you grant us permission to store that information on your device.

Going retro: Supporting the 5th National Retrosynthesis Competition 2018

May 10, 2018

A skilled chef can taste a meal they’ve never had before and tell you the list of ingredients, how they were combined, and devise a method to cook it themselves. This idea of working backwards from a final product to work out how it was made can be applied to even the most complex molecules through a technique of organic chemistry called “retrosynthesis”. Talented organic chemists can look at a molecule they’ve never seen before, and through retrosynthetic methods, determine the building blocks from which the molecule is made, and formulate a possible synthesis route.

To showcase the caliber of chemists from across the UK, the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) have been working in collaboration to create the National Retrosynthesis Competition, which is now in its 5th year. The competition showcases the pioneering retrosynthetic talents of young chemists from both academia and industry, and is proudly sponsored by Thermo Fisher Scientific for this reason.

What does The National Retrosynthesis Competition involve?

With any synthesis of a molecule there will be more than one possible synthetic route, and retrosynthesis is used to discover the many synthetic routes available. The competition emerges from these alternative routes, with rival teams vying to find the most appropriate and straightforward synthesis.

Rob Wybrow of the joint SCI/RSC Organizing Committee explained, “The competition consists of two rounds, both of which require teams to devise a retro- and forward-synthetic route for a given target. Entries to the first round are judged by a panel of two academic and two industrial chemists, who select 10 teams to progress to a live final where the teams will present routes to a second, more challenging, molecule.”

This year’s first-round target molecule was Annotinolide C, a newly isolated lactone derived from Lycopodium annotinum, a species of clubmoss native to forests in North America, Asia and Europe.

target molecule = Annotinolide-C

Annotinolide C – The target molecule that the teams had to retrosynthetically analyze in the competition’s first round


He added: “In both rounds, the entries are judged on a number of areas, including brevity of synthesis, feasibility in forward synthesis and elegance. In the second round, there are also points given for the style of presentation and how they perform under questioning from the judges and audience.”

How did the teams shape up this year?

Academic and industrial teams from all over the UK entered the competition, who were then shortlisted to 10 finalists, who were invited to present at the live final held at Burlington House in London, the home of the RSC. The molecule for this year’s National Retrosynthesis Competition final was Pestaloficin A, which is one of seven newly discovered compounds produced by a mutant form of the endophytic fungus.


target molecule = Pestaloficin A

Pestaloficin A – The target molecule that the teams had to retrosynthetically analyze at the competition’s final


The 10 finalists (with humorous, chemistry-related team names like “The Atoms Family” and “The Radical Strikes Back”) took to the stage to deliver their presentations. After which an esteemed panel of the UK’s leading academic and industrial synthetic chemists judged the event.

The Burton Boys - 5th National Retrosynthesis Competition 2018 winners

Kilian Garrec, Sam Chan and Joseph Mason of “The Burton Boys” with their winning presentation

After a close-fought battle of wits, the winning team was “The Burton Boys” from the University of Oxford’s Synthesis for Biology & Medicine CDT. They used a dazzling array of incredibly complex chemical steps including intramolecular Diels-Alder of benzene oxide, Sonogashira coupling, oxidative dearomatization, and oxidative allylic rearrangements. The top three teams were also awarded specially designed trophies, in addition to acclaim from their peers.

The wider objective of the competition

SCI was established in 1881 with the principal aim of furthering the application of chemistry and its related sciences into industry for the benefit of the public. It provides the opportunity to share information between sectors as diverse as food and agriculture, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and the chemical industry. The RSC is the world’s leading chemistry community, advancing excellence in the chemical sciences. With over 54,000 members and an international publishing and knowledge business. They are the UK’s professional body for chemical scientists, and both SCI and the RSC bring together chemical scientists from all over the world through various activities, including networking, events, and early career support.

The sharing of information is the driving force behind competitions such as the National Retrosynthesis Competition. Daisy Goddard from SCI explained: “This is one of our key events. It attracts a lot of early-career scientists just beginning their journey and puts them in touch with prominent academics and people from industry. As well as the prestige from the competition, it is also a great opportunity to network.”

This integration of science and industry to serve the public is in complete alignment with Thermo Fisher Scientific’s aim to facilitate science as much as possible, with the ultimate goal of making the world healthier, cleaner, and safer.

Alfa Aesar can support and provide experience in a wide range of scientific disciplines. If you would like to learn more about how our products and services can benefit you and your lab,then visit the chemicals pages.




Life Science

Metals & Materials


Analytical & Labware