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Arthur C. Cope Scholar: Makoto Fujita

by Jean-François Tremblay
March 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 9

Credit: Bikoshaen
Makoto Fujita
Credit: Bikoshaen

Makoto Fujita, a professor of chemistry at the University of Tokyo, is a pioneer in the field of metal-directed supramolecular self-assembly, in which transition metals direct the assembly of two- or three-dimensional structures. Fujita, 55, has been named a “most-cited scientist in chemistry” by the Thomson Reuters-owned ISI Web of Knowledge. His work has been cited more than 18,000 times.

The chemical structures that Fujita creates have unusual shapes. A square molecule brought him fame in 1990. He later topped that by creating frameworks in the shape of cages, capsules, bowls, tubes, spheres, and catenanes—which consist of interlocking macrocycles.

It was his ambition to apply the methods of synthetic organic chemistry to inorganic chemistry that led Fujita to achieve his famous self-assembled Pd(II)-bipyridine square back in 1990. “The transition metal palladium has a 90° coordination angle that cannot be obtained with organic elements,” he notes.

Chemists back then widely noted Fujita’s achievement. “In 1990, Fujita published a paper on a spontaneously assembled molecular square with four Pd(II) atoms at its corners,” recalls Julius Rebek Jr., who is intimately familiar with Fujita’s work. Rebek is director of Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology and the department of chemistry at Scripps Research Institute, in California. “This historical publication had an enormous impact on the molecular sciences in general, as testified by the number of reports of self-assembled 2-D and 3-D structures, incorporating transition metals and di- or multitopic ligands, published since.” Such ligands, which contain multiple coordination sites, form bridges between metal atoms, thereby helping build up self-assembling structures.

Then, a paper Fujita published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (DOI: 10.1021/ja00082a055) became one of the most cited in the field of supramolecular self-assembly, Rebek notes. The paper pioneered the field of metal-organic frameworks.

“The self-assembly methods he introduced overcame the difficulties of earlier covalent syntheses and continue to have an enormous impact,” says Rebek. “Thanks to his efforts, and those of the Raymond-Bergman team at the University of California, Berkeley, these molecules within molecules are the modern tools of physical organic chemistry and are widely used for studies of molecular recognition, as catalysts, and for amplifying weak intermolecular forces and, as a result, allowing the existence and easy characterization of molecules that have only fleeting lifetimes in solution.”

Fujita obtained a Ph.D. in chemistry from Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1982. He was a researcher at Sagami Chemical Research Center from 1982 to 1988. He then joined Chiba University as an assistant professor and was later promoted to associate professor. He achieved the rank of professor in 1999 at Nagoya University before taking up his current post in 2002.

Looking ahead, Fujita and his group believe they are getting close to creating a simple biological structure through self-assembly. The outcome, Fujita says, could be giant spherical structures from hundreds of tiny molecular components reminiscent of spherical viruses. “The pioneer of self-assembly is nature,” he notes. “A synthetic biological structure is almost impossible, but we feel we can get close in terms of formation mechanisms, size, and function.”


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