Issue Date: February 17, 2014
Chemistry’s Golden Age
This guest editorial is by Scott P. Lockledge, CEO and cofounder of Tiptek, a manufacturer of probes for atomic force microscopy applications. Lockledge is also a member of the C&EN Advisory Board.
As an innovator and entrepreneur, I talk to many scientists. Recently, I have sensed from these conversations a pessimism about the future of the chemical sciences. Maybe it comes from the record high unemployment, the limited job opportunities for recent graduates, or the salaries lagging behind those of other professions. Maybe it is due to the weak economy, but I do not believe the chemistry sky is falling.
The 20th century brought “Better things for better living through chemistry,” as the DuPont slogan went. Think plastics, coatings, microelectronics, and textiles—all manner of “things” to improve the quality of our lives. If 20th-century chemistry was about things, what will define the next hundred years? And why should the chemical community feel great optimism?
While many fields will advance, the 21st century will be about fundamental and transformational innovations from the biochemical-medical fields. To paraphrase DuPont’s old slogan, coming decades will bring “Better health for better living through chemistry.”
Consider this: In the past 60 years, we have identified the chemical basis for biology and transformed it from a descriptive endeavor to one that explains life through logical application of biochemical and genetic first principles. As chemists and chemical engineers disentangle the mystery of life, they will have unimaginable opportunities to discover and innovate. Here are a few areas where I expect groundbreaking activity.
The Biochemistry of Aging. The Prudential Financial billboard that reads, “The first person to live to 150 is alive today,” has been drawing attention. Prudential provides a convincing actuarial argument to support the claim. From where will the medical innovations to extend life come? Likely, they will come from many areas. For example, resveratrol and related compounds mimic the effects of severe calorie restriction and extend life for a number of model organisms. Research deploying multiple-gene substitution shows life may be dramatically lengthened in model organisms as well. In fact, a Gordon Research Conference on cell death will be held this summer. Chemists, let’s continue to board this train and ride it.
The Biochemical Basis of Cancer. For the first time in history, we can prevent a cancer. Specifically, women can avoid cervical cancer by receiving the HPV vaccine. Other fascinating progress has been made in treating leukemia using gene therapy. Soon, we will think of chemotherapy and radiation treatments as primitive. Researchers are mapping a series of major cancers in NIH’s Cancer Genome Atlas; their labors will no doubt lead to fundamental advances and therapies. Chemists will continue to play a vital role in the search for cancer cures.
Neuroscience and Brain Research. The NIH Human Connectome Project and the Brain Activity Map project (to start later this year) are ambitious efforts to understand the neural pathways that underlie human brain function. They will set the stage for future studies of many neurological and psychiatric disorders and possibly lead to advances in artificial intelligence. At their core, these activities are exercises in discerning the biochemical and electrochemical pathways by which the brain functions. Again, chemists can and should play lead parts in moving these efforts forward.
Chemistry as Information Science. To sequence the 3 billion base pairs of the first human genomes cost about $3 billion. A complete human genome now costs about $1,000. The genomes of nearly every major food, animal, and model organism have now been sequenced, at least in rough draft. This effort provides an enormous pool of data for young creative chemists with cross-training in information science and other disciplines to manage, mine, and develop first-principles understanding. New biomedical products and therapeutics will follow.
At no time has it ever been better to be a chemist or a chemical engineer than today. Never. As long as we push chemistry boldly forward and continue the stream of innovations that improve lives and the human condition, we will continue to enjoy public and private support of our efforts, and our science will flourish.
Scott P. Lockledge
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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