Developing new drugs and tools to understand the chemistry of life

Life is a series of chemical reactions. Chemistry powers individual cells and whole organisms, and allows them to communicate with each other. Cells have perfected the control of chemical reactions, for example by evolving various enzymes – proteins that are adapted to make specific chemical reactions occur more rapidly.

A fluorescent chemical group reveals the position of lipids in a cell.
A fluorescent chemical group reveals the position of lipids in a cell.

To understand more about the way life works, scientists can use chemical tools. Chemistry also allows scientists to develop new drugs that cure diseases by changing the activity of proteins or other molecules in the body.

At EMBL, chemistry is applied in various ways. The development of new chemical tools involves the design of molecules on the computer and their synthesis in the lab. These molecules can then be used to identify or tag other molecules in living cells, making it possible to observe them under the microscope. New tools also allow scientists to analyse all of a cell’s metabolites – the molecules that are produced by the chemical reactions taking place inside the cell.

To develop new drugs, several disciplines work closely together. At EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), computer programmes are developed for storing, searching, and analysing chemical data. These programmes allow scientists to predict the biological effects of specific molecules and help them to select interesting drug candidates. Engineering helps researchers by providing new technologies that enable thousands of molecules to be tested simultaneously for biological activity. Chemists can then modify these molecules further to enhance their properties. This approach can lead to the discovery of new drugs targeting common diseases, such as viral infections or cancer.

Core facilities

Chemical biology core facility

Infrastructure and expertise for assay development, small-molecule screening and use of medicinal chemistry to optimise compounds against novel targets for 'biotool' or early drug development.

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Additional Information

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From microscopy to mycology, from development to disease modelling, EMBL researchers cover a wide range of topics in the biological sciences.