UPDATE 04 Sept 2020: This behavior been fixed in Mathematica 12.1.

Background Information: In Mathematica 12.0, SDF Import automatically triggers the generation of Molecule[] representations. SDF files contain both structural information as well as metadata, and a valid SDF need not contain the structural information.

Problem: Mathematica fails to import valid Metadata, if structure information is missing. This is out of spec for the SDF format.

Demonstration: First, retrieve an SDF file containing two substance records from PubChem

retrieveSDF[sids_List] := With[
  {url = URLBuild[
      StringRiffle[sids, ","], (*comma-separated SIDs*)
  URLExecute[url, {}, "Text"]]

ImportString[retrieveSDF[{50608295, 3272}], "SDF"]

output from ImportString This is totally understandable---substance 50608295 doesn't contain any structure information, so it is asking too much to generate a Molecule[].

But it's record does contain valid Metadata. Writing the SDF to disk and Import[]-ing only the "Metadata" data elements returns a failure.

Export["example.sdf", retrieveSDF[{50608295, 3272}], "Text"]
Import["example.sdf", {"Metadata"}]

output from Import of Metadata only

(despite the fact that valid Metadata is in fact available in the example.sdf file---seen by Import["example.sdf", "Text"] or just opening)

Audience participation question: Can anyone try this on Mathematica <12 ? SDF handling has been around since version 7, but I suspect that the use of the new Molecule[] functionality in version 12 has broken this.

Update: @BobTheChemist reports that it behaves properly (returns Metadata) in Mathematica 11.3, so I've upgraded the question to the "bug" tag)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ V11.3 yields Metadata for the record. It reports None instead of $Failed for the ImportString command. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 18:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I can fix this for 12.1. $\endgroup$
    – Jason B.
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 21:19

1 Answer 1


One of the support functions called by Import is checking if the molecule has no atoms, and if so then it returns $Failed. This is just because the developer was short-sighted and didn't see a use for a molecule-less SDF file.

This is fixed in the current sources for the next release. For version 12.0 we can do a "surgical strike" on the existing code to fix the issue.

Molecule;(*this symbol will autoload the package*)
DownValues[Chemistry`Private`MoleculeFileParseDump`getMoleculeFromSDF] = ReplaceAll[
    DownValues @ Chemistry`Private`MoleculeFileParseDump`getMoleculeFromSDF,
    HoldPattern[If[Less[_["atomCount", _], 1], ___]] :> Null

Evaluating the above should fix the problem.

  • $\begingroup$ Confirming that this fixes the issue in version 12.0: generic Import[] returns Molecule[]s with zero atoms having the correct MetaInformation; Import[] of Metadata only correctly returns an Association. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 14:46

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