Importance of Engineered and Learned Molecular Representations in Predicting Organic Reactivity, Selectivity, and Chemical Properties

Liliana Gallegos, Guilian Luchini, Peter St. John, Seonah Kim, Robert Paton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Scopus Citations


Machine-readable chemical structure representations are foundational in all attempts to harness machine learning for the prediction of reactivities, selectivities, and chemical properties directly from molecular structure. The featurization of discrete chemical structures into a continuous vector space is a critical phase undertaken before model selection, and the development of new ways to quantitatively encode molecules is an active area of research. In this Account, we highlight the application and suitability of different representations, from expert-guided "engineered" descriptors to automatically "learned" features, in different prediction tasks relevant to organic and organometallic chemistry, where differing amounts of training data are available. These tasks include statistical models of stereo- and enantioselectivity, thermochemistry, and kinetics developed using experimental and quantum chemical data. The use of expert-guided molecular descriptors provides an opportunity to incorporate chemical knowledge, domain expertise, and physical constraints into statistical modeling. In applications to stereoselective organic and organometallic catalysis, where data sets may be relatively small and 3D-geometries and conformations play an important role, mechanistically informed features can be used successfully to obtain predictive statistical models that are also chemically interpretable. We provide an overview of several recent applications of this approach to obtain quantitative models for reactivity and selectivity, where topological descriptors, quantum mechanical calculations of electronic and steric properties, along with conformational ensembles, all feature as essential ingredients of the molecular representations used. Alternatively, more flexible, general-purpose molecular representations such as attributed molecular graphs can be used with machine learning approaches to learn the complex relationship between a structure and prediction target. This approach has the potential to out-perform more traditional representation methods such as "hand-crafted" molecular descriptors, particularly as data set sizes grow. One area where this is particularly relevant is in the use of large sets of quantum mechanical data to train quantitative structure-property relationships. A general approach toward curating useful data sets and training highly accurate graph neural network models is discussed in the context of organic bond dissociation enthalpies, where this strategy outperforms regression using precomputed descriptors. Finally, we describe how graph neural network predictions can be incorporated into mechanistically informed statistical models of chemical reactivity and selectivity. Once trained, this approach avoids the expensive computational overhead associated with quantum mechanical calculations, while maintaining chemical interpretability. We illustrate examples for which fast predictions of bond dissociation enthalpy and of the identities of radicals formed through cleavage of a molecule's weakest bond are used in simple physical models of site-selectivity and reactivity.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)827-836
Number of pages10
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2021

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-2700-79214


  • chemical properties
  • machine learning
  • molecular structure
  • reactivity
  • selectivity


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