David Leigh (scientist)

David Alan Leigh (born 1963)[1] FRS FRSE FRSC is a British chemist, Royal Society Research Professor[2] and, since 2014, the Sir Samuel Hall Chair of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Manchester. He was previously the Forbes Chair of Organic Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh (2001–2012) and Professor of Synthetic Chemistry at the University of Warwick (1998–2001).[3][4]

David Leigh
David A. Leigh in 2019.png
Leigh in 2019
David Alan Leigh

(1963-05-31) 31 May 1963 (age 59)[1]
Alma materUniversity of Sheffield (BSc, PhD)
Known forCatenanes, Rotaxanes, Molecular knots, Molecular machines
AwardsFRS (2009)
FRSE (2005)
Feynman Prize (2007)
Izatt-Christensen Award (2007)
Perkin Prize (2017)
Royal Society Bakerian Medal (2013)
Royal Society of Edinburgh Royal Medal (2021)
Scientific career
FieldsSupramolecular chemistry
Organic chemistry
InstitutionsUniversity of Manchester
University of Edinburgh
University of Warwick
ThesisThe synthesis and properties of novel and natural macrocyclic trichothecenes (1987)


Leigh was educated at Codsall Community High School and the University of Sheffield.[1]

Career and researchEdit

He is noted for the invention of fundamental methods to control molecular-level dynamics and entanglement, including strategies to construct rotaxanes, catenanes and molecular knots and some of the earliest synthetic molecular motors, molecular robots and functional nanomachines.

Using mechanically-interlocked molecular architectures he prepared a novel molecular information ratchet[5] that employs a mechanism reminiscent of Maxwell's demon (although it requires an energy input and so does not challenge the second law of thermodynamics).[6] He has developed a rotaxane based photoactive molecular switch with the capability of changing the hydrophobicity of a surface and thus causing small droplets of liquid to move up hill, against the force of gravity.[7] In 2009 he reported the first small-molecule walker-track system in which a 'walker' can be transported directionally along a short molecular track in a manner reminiscent of the way that biological motor proteins 'walk' along biopolymers in the cell.[8] In 2011 his research group described the smallest molecular knot prepared to date (a 76-atom-loop trefoil knot – three crossing points[9]) and also a 160-atom-loop pentafoil knot (five crossing points).[10] The Leigh group have also reported the synthesis of an 819 knot, the most complex molecular knot made to date,[11] and a molecular endless knot[12] (the smallest Chinese knot). In 2013 the Leigh group reported[13] a small-molecule machine capable of detaching and assembling a series of amino acid building blocks from a track into a peptide of specific sequence, a very primitive version of the task performed by the ribosome. They also invented the first autonomous chemically-fuelled synthetic molecular motor[14] and demonstrated a small-molecule 'robotic arm' able to transport molecular fragments between sites 2 nm apart on a molecular platform, marking the start of so-called 'small-molecule robotics'.[15] In 2017 the Leigh group reported the first molecular robot that can be programmed to build different molecules.[16] The molecular robot could be programmed to construct any one of four different stereoisomers of a molecular product, a significant step towards a 'molecular assembler'. The achievement was hailed as 'science fiction becomes fact'.[17] In 2020 the Leigh group described the 2D weaving of polymer chains,[18] resulting in a molecularly-woven fabric with a thread count of 40-60 million (the finest Egyptian linen has a thread count of ~1500).

In September 2016 Leigh was suggested as one of three candidates for the potential award of a Nobel Prize for synthetic molecular machines.[19] However, on 5 October 2016 the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to J. Fraser Stoddart, Ben Feringa and Jean-Pierre Sauvage for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.[20]

Public engagementEdit

Leigh’s 819 molecular knot features in the 2019 Guinness Book of World Records.[21] In 2018 he commissioned ‘Nanobot’,[22] a parody by acapellascience of ‘Havana’ by Camila Cabello, describing the science behind nanorobotics. The ‘Professor David Leigh Prize for Chemistry’ at Codsall Community High School encourages girls and disadvantaged children to study science at university.[23] Leigh is a Director and Governor of Withington Girls' School.

Leigh is a former national champion contract bridge player[24] and an accomplished magician (ex-Edinburgh Magic Circle and the Manchester Circle of Magicians), known for blending magic and science in his public lectures.

Awards and honoursEdit


  1. ^ a b c "LEIGH, Prof. David Alan". Who's Who. ukwhoswho.com. Vol. 2016 (online Oxford University Press ed.). A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) (subscription required)
  2. ^ "Leading scientists awarded Royal Society Research Professorships | Royal Society". royalsociety.org.
  3. ^ Kay, E. R.; Leigh, D. A.; Zerbetto, F. (2007). "Synthetic Molecular Motors and Mechanical Machines". Angewandte Chemie International Edition. 46 (1–2): 72–191. doi:10.1002/anie.200504313. PMID 17133632.
  4. ^ Brouwer, A. M.; Frochot, C.; Gatti, F. G.; Leigh, D. A.; Mottier, L.; Paolucci, F.; Roffia, S.; Wurpel, G. W. (2001). "Photoinduction of Fast, Reversible Translational Motion in a Hydrogen-Bonded Molecular Shuttle". Science. 291 (5511): 2124–2128. Bibcode:2001Sci...291.2124B. doi:10.1126/science.1057886. PMID 11251112. S2CID 31639520.
  5. ^ "Leigh's Group's illustrated explanation of the "ratchet"". Archived from the original on 20 August 2008.
  6. ^ "Tiny engine boosts nanotech hopes". 1 February 2007 – via news.bbc.co.uk.
  7. ^ "Nanotech team move water droplets". 29 August 2005 – via news.bbc.co.uk.
  8. ^ "'Two-legged' molecular walker takes a stroll". Chemistry World. 21 December 2009.
  9. ^ Barran, P. E.; Cole, H. L.; Goldup, S. M.; Leigh, D. A.; McGonigal, P. R.; Symes, M. D.; Wu, J.; Zengerle, M. (2011). "Active-Metal Template Synthesis of a Molecular Trefoil Knot". Angewandte Chemie International Edition. 50 (51): 12280–12284. doi:10.1002/anie.201105012. PMID 21919173.
  10. ^ Ayme, J. F.; Beves, J. E.; Leigh, D. A.; McBurney, R. T.; Rissanen, K.; Schultz, D. (2011). "A synthetic molecular pentafoil knot". Nature Chemistry. 4 (1): 15–20. CiteSeerX doi:10.1038/nchem.1193. PMID 22169866.
  11. ^ Danon, Jonathan J.; Krüger, Anneke; Leigh, David A.; Lemonnier, Jean-François; Stephens, Alexander J.; Vitorica-Yrezabal, Iñigo J.; Woltering, Steffen L. (2017). "Braiding a molecular knot with eight crossings". Science. 355 (6321): 159–162. Bibcode:2017Sci...355..159D. doi:10.1126/science.aal1619. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 28082585. S2CID 206654419.
  12. ^ Leigh, David A.; Danon, Jonathan J.; Fielden, Stephen D. P.; Lemonnier, Jean-François; Whitehead, George F. S.; Woltering, Steffen L. (14 December 2020). "A molecular endless (7 4 ) knot". Nature Chemistry. 13 (2): 117–122. doi:10.1038/s41557-020-00594-x. PMID 33318672. S2CID 229163544.
  13. ^ "Tiny molecular machine apes cellular production line". 11 January 2013 – via www.bbc.co.uk.
  14. ^ Wilson, Miriam R.; Solà, Jordi; Carlone, Armando; Goldup, Stephen M.; Lebrasseur, Nathalie; Leigh, David A. (June 2016). "An autonomous chemically fuelled small-molecule motor" (PDF). Nature. 534 (7606): 235–240. Bibcode:2016Natur.534..235W. doi:10.1038/nature18013. PMID 27279219.
  15. ^ Kassem, S.; Lee, A. T. L..; Leigh, D. A.; Markevicius, A.; Solá, J. (2016). "Pick-up, transport and release of a molecular cargo using a small-molecule robotic arm". Nature Chemistry. 8 (2): 138–143. Bibcode:2016NatCh...8..138K. doi:10.1038/nchem.2410. PMID 26791896.
  16. ^ Kassem, S.; Lee, A. T. L..; Leigh, D. A.; Marcos, V.; Palmer, L. I.; Pisano, S. (2017). "Stereodivergent synthesis with a programmable molecular machine". Nature. 549 (7672): 374–378. Bibcode:2017Natur.549..374K. doi:10.1038/nature23677. PMID 28933436. S2CID 205259758.
  17. ^ @NatureNV (21 September 2017). "Science fiction becomes fact: a machine that assembles molecules" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  18. ^ August, David P.; Dryfe, Robert A. W.; Haigh, Sarah J.; Kent, Paige R. C.; Leigh, David A.; Lemonnier, Jean-François; Li, Zheling; Muryn, Christopher A.; Palmer, Leoni I.; Song, Yiwei; Whitehead, George F. S.; Young, Robert J. (December 2020). "Self-assembly of a layered two-dimensional molecularly woven fabric". Nature. 588 (7838): 429–435. Bibcode:2020Natur.588..429A. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-3019-9. PMID 33328664. S2CID 229300105.
  19. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Who will win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry?". YouTube.
  20. ^ Staff (5 October 2016). "The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2016". Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  21. ^ "Guinness World Records certificate". catenane.net. Retrieved 26 May 2020.
  22. ^ "Nanobot (Havana Parody) - A Capella Science ft. Dorothy Andrusiak". youtube.com. Archived from the original on 21 December 2021. Retrieved 26 May 2020.
  23. ^ "Leigh and the first two recipients of the 'Professor David Leigh Prize for Chemistry' at Codsall Community High School". twitter.com. Retrieved 26 May 2020.
  24. ^ "National Pairs - Winners - Scotsman Trophy". The Scottish Bridge Union. Retrieved 26 May 2020.
  25. ^ "RSC Supramolecular Chemistry Award". Royal Society of Chemistry.
  27. ^ "Professor David Alan Leigh FRS FRSE". The Royal Society of Edinburgh.
  28. ^ "RSC Nanotechnology Award". Royal Society of Chemistry.
  29. ^ "Izatt-Christensen Award Goes to David Leigh". Chemical & Engineering News.
  30. ^ "2007 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize". Foresight Institute.
  31. ^ "Descartes Prize 2007". YouTube. Archived from the original on 21 December 2021.
  32. ^ "ERC FUNDED PROJECTS 2008". European Research Council.
  33. ^ "ERC FUNDED PROJECTS 2013". European Research Council.
  34. ^ "ERC FUNDED PROJECTS 2017". European Research Council.
  35. ^ "Professor David Leigh FRS". The Royal Society.
  36. ^ "RSC Merck Award 2009 winner". Royal Society of Chemistry.
  37. ^ "RSC Tilden Prize 2010 Winner". Royal Society of Chemistry.
  38. ^ "Making the tiniest machines". The Royal Society.
  39. ^ "RSC Pedler Award 2014 Winner". Royal Society of Chemistry.
  40. ^ "Academy of Europe: Leigh David - Academia Europaea". Academia Europaea.
  41. ^ "Leading scientists awarded Royal Society Research Professorships". The Royal Society.
  42. ^ "RSC Perkin Prize for Organic Chemistry 2017 Winner". Royal Society of Chemistry. Retrieved 16 June 2017.
  43. ^ "2019 ISNSCE Nanoscience Prize – Prof. David Leigh". 8 April 2020.
  44. ^ "National achievement highlighted by Royal Society of Edinburgh's medals". 9 September 2021.