The functionalization of specific inert C-H bonds avoids the need for functional groups in organic synthesis and here the challenges of this approach are overcome using a dirhodium catalyst that is capable of C-H bond site-selectivity.
The synthesis of complex organic compounds usually relies on controlling the reactions of the functional groups. In recent years, it has become possible to carry out reactions directly on the C-H bonds, previously considered to be unreactive1,2,3. One of the major challenges is to control the site-selectivity because most organic compounds have many similar C-H bonds. The most well developed procedures so far rely on the use of substrate control, in which the substrate has one inherently more reactive C-H bond4 or contains a directing group5,6 or the reaction is conducted intramolecularly7 so that a specific C-H bond is favoured. A more versatile but more challenging approach is to use catalysts to control which site in the substrate is functionalized. p450 enzymes exhibit C-H oxidation site-selectivity, in which the enzyme scaffold causes a specific C-H bond to be functionalized by placing it close to the iron-oxo haem complex8. Several studies have aimed to emulate this enzymatic site-selectivity with designed transition-metal catalysts but it is difficult to achieve exceptionally high levels of site-selectivity9,10,11. Recently, we reported a dirhodium catalyst for the site-selective functionalization of the most accessible non-activated (that is, not next to a functional group) secondary C-H bonds by means of rhodium-carbene-induced C-H insertion12. Here we describe another dirhodium catalyst that has a very different reactivity profile. Instead of the secondary C-H bond12, the new catalyst is capable of precise site-selectivity at the most accessible tertiary C-H bonds. Using this catalyst, we modify several natural products, including steroids and a vitamin E derivative, indicating the applicability of this method of synthesis to the late-stage functionalization of complex molecules. These studies show it is possible to achieve site-selectivity at different positions within a substrate simply by selecting the appropriate catalyst. We hope that this work will inspire the design of even more sophisticated catalysts, such that catalyst-controlled C-H functionalization becomes a broadly applied strategy for the synthesis of complex molecules.