Deep Learning to Generate in Silico Chemical Property Libraries and Candidate Molecules for Small Molecule Identification in Complex Samples

Anal Chem. 2020 Jan 21;92(2):1720-1729. doi: 10.1021/acs.analchem.9b02348. Epub 2020 Jan 6.


Comprehensive and unambiguous identification of small molecules in complex samples will revolutionize our understanding of the role of metabolites in biological systems. Existing and emerging technologies have enabled measurement of chemical properties of molecules in complex mixtures and, in concert, are sensitive enough to resolve even stereoisomers. Despite these experimental advances, small molecule identification is inhibited by (i) chemical reference libraries (e.g., mass spectra, collision cross section, and other measurable property libraries) representing <1% of known molecules, limiting the number of possible identifications, and (ii) the lack of a method to generate candidate matches directly from experimental features (i.e., without a library). To this end, we developed a variational autoencoder (VAE) to learn a continuous numerical, or latent, representation of molecular structure to expand reference libraries for small molecule identification. We extended the VAE to include a chemical property decoder, trained as a multitask network, in order to shape the latent representation such that it assembles according to desired chemical properties. The approach is unique in its application to metabolomics and small molecule identification, with its focus on properties that can be obtained from experimental measurements (m/z, CCS) paired with its training paradigm, which involved a cascade of transfer learning iterations. First, molecular representation is learned from a large data set of structures with m/z labels. Next, in silico property values are used to continue training, as experimental property data is limited. Finally, the network is further refined by being trained with the experimental data. This allows the network to learn as much as possible at each stage, enabling success with progressively smaller data sets without overfitting. Once trained, the network can be used to predict chemical properties directly from structure, as well as generate candidate structures with desired chemical properties. Our approach is orders of magnitude faster than first-principles simulation for CCS property prediction. Additionally, the ability to generate novel molecules along manifolds, defined by chemical property analogues, positions DarkChem as highly useful in a number of application areas, including metabolomics and small molecule identification, drug discovery and design, chemical forensics, and beyond.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation*
  • Deep Learning*
  • Metabolomics
  • Molecular Structure
  • Small Molecule Libraries / analysis*
  • Small Molecule Libraries / metabolism


  • Small Molecule Libraries