Issue Date: March 17, 2008
Not-so-new field of Chemical biology
I'm pleased that the "new" field of chemical biology is alive and well and worthy of a new journal, ACS Chemical Biology (C&EN Oct. 1, 2007, page 31). As a "biochemical engineer" at the University of Michigan, I recall learning about microbiological processes and chemical principles in the food and pharmaceutical industries back in the 1960s, and the cross-discipline was already well established.
Jacques Loeb, one of the earliest pioneers of chemical biology, described it thusly: "Living organisms are chemical machines, made of essentially colloidal material which possess the peculiarity of developing, preserving, and reproducing themselves automatically. ... We may, therefore, say that it is now proved beyond all doubt that the variables in the chemical processes in living organisms are identical with those which the chemist has to deal with in the laboratory. As a consequence of this result, chemical biology has during the last years entered into the series of those sciences which are capable of predicting their results quantitatively" (emphasis added) (Science 1904, 20, 777).
There are also numerous mentions of professorships in chemical biology in 1902 and earlier. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, a member of the Institute of France, made a gift of 30,000,000 francs ($1.2 million) to found and support an institute of "physicochemical biology" in 1927, the need for which he had suggested a number of years earlier. There are several surviving and evolving departments of biochemical engineering and of chemical biology interfacing the chemical and life sciences.
As the author Vladimir Nabokov once said, "There is no science without fancy and no art without fact." I would hazard to say further that there is no biology without chemistry.
Stacy L. Daniels
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