Draw chemical structures

Chemical structure drawing is of ongoing interest to chemists so we have a list of programs and reviews by users. Of course, with the likes of PubChem and ChemSpider now available one might wonder whether there is any need to draw one’s own structures from scratch, but plenty of chemists and others still do. Sciencebase polled a few contacts via Twitter and LinkedIn to find out what chemical structure packages people are using, what are the pros and cons.

The vast majority of users seem to side with ChemDraw, especially those in academia because of the liberal licensing, but they all gripes about compatibility and cutting & pasting. The likes fo ChemSketch fair well and others such as Pymol and Symyx seem to be used by specialists in particular areas.

Wozza told me that he uses ChemDraw, but hates how it’s broken on the Mac and lacks support for that platform, it’s also unfortunate that it has broken round trip editing, and poor cut&paste into other applications. Nevertheless, ChemDraw has good functionality, compatibility with colleagues, and produces “good looking drawings”.

davidperrey uses ChemDraw, as part of ChemBioOffice 2010, though says that he probably draws more structures using Java apps on ChemSpider/Reaxys/etc. “I use ChemDraw for preparing Powerpoint slides or report figures, but most of the time when I am drawing structures (using a computer at least) it is doing literature searches and/or looking up information on chemicals that I am interested in using,” Perrey explains. “ChemDraw is perfectly fine, though I have a pet peeve that when I type an atom in lower case ( say n or cl) it fails to recognize that as the element I am putting in.” As far as the java apps go: Reaxys is the browser-based replacement for Beilstein, so I use it a lot. I find it slow to get started, but once it is going, it is quite responsive and easy to use (except copy/pasting structures takes a while, sometimes easier to just redraw the product). Atom-mapping is useful, but the auto-mapping is occasionally awful – better to do manually.

[Chemaxon’s Alex Allerdyce commented: I think davidperrey was referring to Marvin when he mentioned Reaxys “…As far as the java apps go: Reaxys is the browser-based replacement for Beilstein, so I use it a lot…”. So far as I know Marvin is the native editor on Reaxys tho other sketchers (resident at the user – not delivered at the site) are supported.]

Perrey explains that with ChemSpider, “It seems like there are more steps to get down to drawing than there should be, but once you get there, the interface is functional but smooth. All the various rings are hidden away in “templates” but there is a lot to choose from, and simply drawing structures is easy. Atom changes are straightforward too, as you click on the element you want and then just click everywhere you want it.” Then there is eMolecules, which is “mostly for looking for available chemicals, it has a very bare-bones interface, with one panel of tools, but it does the job and has very little load-up time as the Java starts. Labelling atoms is easy, with a fixed list of the most common and a space to fill in your oddballs (it recognizes the elements too, though won’t let you type say zn for zinc, has to be Zn)

He adds that Chem ACX is another for looking for available chemicals, basically a ChemDraw type browser plugin, so similarities to that. Doesn’t like lower case atom labels either. Feels a bit slower and clunkier than the others above.

littleghoti says he uses ChemDraw (despite the price), when he has to because it does all he needs. “But, as a physical chemist, I am deeply suspicious of anything with more than 10 atoms.”

biochembelle also uses ChemDraw. “It’s pretty easy to figure out the basics, even for beginners,” she says, “but has many options available, like a TLC plate drawing tool, templates/clip art for conformers, glassware, complicated ring structures, and it’s easy to generate and modify figures quality and properties, save as multiple file types for publication. It also has the ability to convert chemical names to structures and vice versa. However, the disadvantages are the price but for those who can get an institutional site license. Also, structure and reaction cleanup options are not useful for aesthetics or minimizing space used.

But, chemical informatics expert Wendy Warr, tells me she uses Symyx Draw and its Structure Resolver too. “Symyx Draw is free for personal or academic use,” she adds. Steven Bachrach of Trinity University is also a Symyx Draw user because of the “nice looking drawings, good structure to name facility, can produce InChIs, easy to use, free to academics, front end into many database systems.”

Undergraduate detox29 has found ChemSketch to be adequate and gxusm told me that they use Symyx Draw user, mainly because that’s what we were taught to use at University. kjhaxton is also a Symyx Draw user, who occasionally uses ChemDraw or ChemSketch, and Accelyrs DC visualizer & Avogadro for the really pretty graphics!

jat45 uses Chem4Word, ChemDraw, Marvin, JChempaint, and a bit of JME. Jerome Baudry of the University of Tennessee/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, uses Isis Draw or MOE and translate to 2D for “really good looking” structures. Hans Johansson also mixes it up: “Marvin and JChem!” he exclains, adding that, “The ChemAxxon package is just great and works on most platforms, but
ChemDraw is just not worth money, unless you draw and analyze structures all the time.”

Robert Slinn uses ChemBioOffice 12.0 which includes ChemBioDraw which is excellent but not free except to academics. There are a number of free packages available including ACD/Labs ChemSketch and ISIS Draw.

xtaldave uses PyMol and CCP4m, while modernscientist and proteopedia also use Pymol with its Deep View for some structure alterations.

Wozza adds that he looked at Chemdoodle a few months ago and describes it as “very promising, especially with web features, but at the time lacked the functionality to use every day.”

hhhernandez uses ChemDraw as does jordancdarwin if it’s available, but MarvinDraw out of principle.

barneygrubbs laments the fact that all of his old files are in a particular format, therefore, “I sadly use ChemDraw (like @NeilWithers, a former Atoms user for solid state stuff),” he told me. Like others, Grubbs, of Stony Brook University, gave me a list of pros and cons for ChemDraw: Relatively easy to use (now that I’ve been using it for 13 years), exports to other formats reasonably well (.tiff, especially), and has decent layout tools (align, distribute, etc.). But on the down side: Native structures usually look bad when pasted directly into powerpoint, editing embedded figures in Word sometimes crashes ChemDraw, drawing polymers often requires stretching backbone bonds and using wider bond angles, but there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to do this repeatedly beyond eyeballing the structures. ChemDraw also still has a number of annoyances (cyclopentadiene rings cannot be drawn with a flat bottom bond, many keyboard shortcuts are different from other programs, C60 default structure looks bad, squiggly single bond is the only real option for generic polymer structures).

“I recently updated my ChemDraw and continue to use it,” Tony Addison, Professor of Chemistry at Drexel University says, “I tried using our free site subscription to ChemSketch (under VMWare Fusion), but the structures I got were of unpublishably poor quality. So I got ChemDraw at an ACS Expo for $90. One thing I find useful about it is the variety of file types to which you can save a diagram for later editing (e.g., in Photoshop).”

Which package you use strongly depends on what you need to draw structures for, says Computational Chemist Richard Wood. “If I am doing docking calculations, then I’d probably “draw” the molecules in Sybyl, as we mostly use SurflexDock to do the docking. If I’m doing QM calculations, then I would probably use GaussView. I’ve occasionally drawn things in Avogadro, but that’s rare. I’ve used ChemDraw in the past, but I’ve noticed that sometimes the structures don’t convert correctly if you want to use them in other applications.” Michael Mayo also explains that he uses GaussView4 as well as generating coordinates with PVWave for Gaussian03 input.

For Drexel University open notebook pioneer Jean-Claude Bradley it’s ChemSketch all the way, although he recently came across a little issue: “SMILES generated from ChemSketch often don’t work on Daylight or ChemSpider but InChIs generated by Chemsketch work fine (except seem to draw the minor tautomer for all the amides I have been drawing,” he explains.

Like so many others, experienced analytical consultant Bruce Girton says he uses ChemSketch when the terms of the freeware license permit. “I think the drawing interface on ChemDraw is a lot more intuitive than that of ChemSketch, but it’s too expensive for the amount of drawing I do,” he says.

Teaching Fellow Matthew Colo of Harvard University compared the two packages he uses: CambridgeSoft ChemOffice/ChemDraw is powerful, fast, easy to use, has templates to incorporate into structures, and automatic nomenclature (and reverse nomenclature). In contrast, ACD/ChemSketch is free, almost as powerful as ChemOffice, and although it takes a bit longer to use, and there is less automation in drawing, it is still relatively easy to use, has templates to incorporate into structures, and automatic nomenclature (and reverse nomenclature).

Frederick Pruijn, a Senior Research Fellow at The University of Auckland, uses ChemDraw and ChemSketch but prefers the latter because it happens to be the front end for other ACD packages that he often uses. “Our chemists use ChemDraw as their workhorse,” he adds. “They also IsisDraw sometimes but I think that is a little clunky compared to the more “modern” packages.”

Brian Halden echoes the sentiment expressed by most respondents in that ChemDraw outshines the other applications but isn’t free. “I picked ChemDraw because that is all I have ever used,” he says. “I did try MarvinSketch for a while but I found it was still a ways off from being my choice of software. ChemDraw was great for drawing reaction schemes and pushing arrows. It even had some graphics for lab equipment that I had used it the lab so all-in-all, it was the preferred program.”

Jayshree Bhatt, Senior Associate at InnovarIP Consulting Group, adds, “I am a scientist and also draft patents where I draw chemical schemes. I have used both ChemDraw and Symyx Draw. ChemDraw is a good tool for scientists, so is ACD draw which gives predicted NMR values, bond lenghts etc, but both are paid software. For the ordinary task of simply drawing structures, Symys is fine as this can be freely downloaded and is compatible with most other software.”

Several correspondents mention checking out SourceForge on a regular basis for updates to the likes of JMol and for newly emerging chemical structure drawing packages and molecular viewers.

Programs mentioned in this post:

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15 thoughts on “Draw chemical structures”

  1. I think davidperrey was referring to Marvin when he mentioned Reaxys “…As far as the java apps go: Reaxys is the browser-based replacement for Beilstein, so I use it a lot…”.

    So far as I know Marvin is the native editor on Reaxys tho other sketchers (resident at the user – not delivered at the site) are supported.

  2. Some great suggestions for ChemDraw, we have noted these down, thanks! CambridgeSoft understands people’s frustration with the round trip editing issues with the latest issues of Word and ChemDraw, and we share these frustrations with our users. Unfortunately, the root of the problem lies in changes that were made to Microsoft Word – which Microsoft made in response to deprecated functionality in the Mac OS. Microsoft removed the ability to retrieve the original chemical data in pictures pasted into Microsoft Word when they released Microsoft Office 2008 (if you copy and paste a structure in Word 2008, for example, into ChemDraw, you can’t edit it). We have escalated this issue with both Microsoft and Apple and will continue to do so. They both understand that this is one of our top issues for Mac users. Microsoft has an open case with Apple regarding their technical problems in correctly implementing this feature (Apple RADAR case #5815892). Apple’s position on this case is that “it will not be possible to provide a solution to this problem that will be compatible with current versions of Mac OS X.” We will continue to work with both Apple and Microsoft to resolve this. Until Microsoft releases a solution, we recommend that our users switch to a previous version of Microsoft Office where this problem does not occur, or save the ChemBioDraw files as separate documents.

  3. ISIS/Draw is no longer available for download. It was replaced by Symyx Draw. Symyx Draw is available for download at no charge for academic and personal use.

    Symyx Draw uses OpenEye’s SMILES converter. This is the same SMILES as is used on ChemSpider and I believe PubChem, so it can be used directly for searches on these platforms. SMILES is not unique so the same dialect must be used for searching.

    Symyx Draw also produces InChIs. These are produced using the library distributed by InChI. Most implementations use these libraries so every application is compatible.

    Symyx Draw also reads ChemDraw’s CDX files to allow users to continue using their existing ChemDraw files after they migrate to Symyx Draw.

    Name to structure and structure to name conversion are included in the free version for IUPAC names, trivial and generic names, InChI names, InChI keys only convert to), SMILES, and Chimestring.

    Current versions of Symyx Draw can use a free add-in to access external web services for name to structure conversion, for example DiscoveryGate (free for this purpose), ChemSpider, PubChem, and the NCI/CADD data set. Structures and reactions can be saved as images including: BMP, GIF, PNG, TIF, WMP, EMF

    he next release of Symyx Draw (4.0) will have this resolver feature built in. Also look out for the sequence drawing capabilities in 4.0.

    Structure drawing capabilities are also exposed in Symyx JDraw Applet. This is a Java Applet and it too is free for academic and personal use. JDraw is one of the drawing options available on ChemSpider.

    ACD/Labs provides an interface between Symyx Draw and their calculators at no charge if you have an ACD/Labs license.

    Of course, Symyx Draw is my favorite drawing package, but then I am the product manager.

  4. For “drawing” a chemical structure you can also use the NCI/CADD Chemical Identifier Resolver (http://cactus.nci.nih.gov/chemical/structure), for instance if you have a chemical name available and want to create the input format for ChemDraw:


    The Resolver supports also file formats for many other spftware packages:


    If you use Symyx Draw, its Structure Resolver (mentioned by Wendy Warr) links the NCI/CADD Chemical Identifier Resolver.

    The Resolver can also create GIF and PNG images:


    For all, you just need to draft an URL.

  5. Something a little bit left field but if you have the need to draw or recall chemical structures when you are on the move, check out ChemJuice from IDBS(@ChemJuice). ChemJuice is the “state of the art” (according to Royal Society of Chemistry) chemical drawing app on the iPhone/iPod touch. It’s available at the Apple App Store. Enjoy.

  6. This makes for very interesting reading. Certainly clarifies the overall dominance of ChemDraw as the drawing package being used by most chemists. ChemSKetch, that I used to manage, has been downloaded over a million times according to the ACD/Labs website and yet still hasn’t achieved a dominant position. I actually use both ChemSKetch and ChemDraw. THey both have their strengths

  7. Don’t forget ChemDoodle. It’s a newcomer to the industry and it’s already used in hundreds of institutions around the world. ChemDoodle 3 is receiving raving results from the testers and will be released in less than 2 weeks. Works on Mac, Windows and Linux and only costs $59.95. Learn more about it at ichemlabs.com.

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