Structure Elucidation of Secondary Metabolites: Current Frontiers and Lingering Pitfalls

Mikaela DiBello, Alan R. Healy, Herman Nikolayevskiy, Zhi Xu, Seth B. Herzon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Analytical methods allow for the structure determination of submilligram quantities of complex secondary metabolites. This has been driven in large part by advances in NMR spectroscopic capabilities, including access to high-field magnets equipped with cryogenic probes. Experimental NMR spectroscopy may now be complemented by remarkably accurate carbon-13 NMR calculations using state-of-the-art DFT software packages. Additionally, microED analysis stands to have a profound effect on structure elucidation by providing X-ray-like images of microcrystalline samples of analytes. Nonetheless, lingering pitfalls in structure elucidation remain, particularly for isolates that are unstable or highly oxidized. In this Account, we discuss three projects from our laboratory that highlight nonoverlapping challenges to the field, with implications for chemical, synthetic, and mechanism of action studies. We first discuss the lomaiviticins, complex unsaturated polyketide natural products disclosed in 2001. The original structures were derived from NMR, HRMS, UV-vis, and IR analysis. Owing to the synthetic challenges presented by their structures and the absence of X-ray crystallographic data, the structure assignments remained untested for nearly two decades. In 2021, the Nelson group at Caltech carried out microED analysis of (−)-lomaiviticin C, leading to the startling discovery that the original structure assignment of the lomaiviticins was incorrect. Acquisition of higher-field (800 MHz 1H, cold probe) NMR data as well as DFT calculations provided insights into the basis for the original misassignment and lent further support to the new structure identified by microED. Reanalysis of the 2001 data set reveals that the two structure assignments are nearly indistinguishable, underscoring the limitations of NMR-based characterization. We then discuss the structure elucidation of colibactin, a complex, nonisolable microbiome metabolite implicated in colorectal cancer. The colibactin biosynthetic gene cluster was detected in 2006, but owing to colibactin’s instability and low levels of production, it could not be isolated or characterized. We used a combination of chemical synthesis, mechanism of action studies, and biosynthetic analysis to identify the substructures in colibactin. These studies, coupled with isotope labeling and tandem MS analysis of colibactin-derived DNA interstrand cross-links, ultimately led to a structure assignment for the metabolite. We then discuss the ocimicides, plant secondary metabolites that were studied as agents against drug-resistant P. falciparum. We synthesized the core structure of the ocimicides and found significant discrepancies between our experimental NMR spectroscopic data and that reported for the natural products. We determined the theoretical carbon-13 NMR shifts for 32 diastereomers of the ocimicides. These studies indicated that a revision of the connectivity of the metabolites is likely needed. We end with some thoughts on the frontiers of secondary metabolite structure determination. As modern NMR computational methods are straightforward to execute, we advocate for their systematic use in validating the assignments of novel secondary metabolites.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1656-1668
Number of pages13
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - Jun 20 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry


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