Perspectives: Back to the future of chemistry | May 2, 2016 Issue - Vol. 94 Issue 18 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 94 Issue 18 | pp. 28-29 | Perspective
Issue Date: May 2, 2016

Perspectives: Back to the future of chemistry

A chemistry stalwart says the field must remain the creative and useful science, and not become the narrow science
By Ronald Breslow, Columbia University
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Biological SCENE, Environmental SCENE, Organic SCENE
Keywords: science policy, molecular frontier, solar power, drug discovery, systems biology, perspective
[+]Enlarge
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock
An illustration shows an aging chemist driving a DeLorean car-time machine through the stars.
 
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock

During my long career doing chemistry, I have formed some strong opinions about what chemistry will be like in the future, or at least what it should be like. I have written about this topic in various places, including a 2003 National Research Council report titled “Beyond The Molecular Frontier,” which is also known as the Breslow-Tirrell Report. It followed similar blue-ribbon panel reports: the 1965 Westheimer Report, also known as “Chemistry: Opportunities and Needs”; the 1985 Pimentel Report, also known as “Opportunities in Chemistry”; and the 1988 Amundson Report, also known as “Frontiers in Chemical Engineering: Research Needs and Opportunities.”

[+]Enlarge
Ronald Breslow
at age 85, continues to teach organic chemistry and run his research group at Columbia University. His research includes creating new anticancer medicines stemming from his team’s earlier success with Zolinza and showing the likely ways by which amino acids, sugars, and nucleosides needed for life to arise on prebiotic Earth could have been formed spontaneously. Breslow served as the 1996 president of the American Chemical Society and is a recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science (1991) and ACS’s Priestley Medal (1999).
Credit: Courtesy of Ronald Breslow
Photo of Columbia University’s Ronald Breslow.
 
Ronald Breslow
at age 85, continues to teach organic chemistry and run his research group at Columbia University. His research includes creating new anticancer medicines stemming from his team’s earlier success with Zolinza and showing the likely ways by which amino acids, sugars, and nucleosides needed for life to arise on prebiotic Earth could have been formed spontaneously. Breslow served as the 1996 president of the American Chemical Society and is a recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science (1991) and ACS’s Priestley Medal (1999).
Credit: Courtesy of Ronald Breslow

These studies were designed to provide a snapshot of where research in the chemical sciences stood at the time and to offer a vision of how advances that seemed possible in the near term could contribute to a brighter future. Many of the advances envisioned by those panels are now being realized: molecular self-assembly, improved optical and X-ray methods for structural analysis, computational methods for catalyst and chemical design, and new medical diagnostics and drug delivery methods, to name a few.

Those challenges have been replaced with new opportunities for future chemists, including those who are now students. Here I identify three such challenges. Their solutions, like the challenges that came before them, will greatly advance our contribution to human welfare as well as strengthen the intellectual base of our science.

Cures, not treatments. It is our science that invents new medicines and how to make them. In this, chemists are assisted by biologists and medical researchers doing the testing. Perhaps the most general challenge in drug discovery today is to invent new medicines that will cure viral diseases. The threat is enormous: Imagine a world in which AIDS or Ebola could be passed by a mosquito bite, unless we develop medicines to conquer the diseases. But besides antivirals, other critical needs include inventing cures—not just treatments—for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, schizophrenia, arthritis, and genetic defects.

Tapping the power of the sun. We need materials with improved electrical properties, including superconducting wires that operate at or near room temperature, so that we can transfer electricity from its source to its point of use without loss from resistance. Then we could generate electricity from the sun in the desert and send it wherever it is needed. And we could develop better photovoltaic materials to convert the desert sunlight to electricity; there’s plenty of room for better efficiency. Currently, we use the solar power of the past to generate energy when we burn coal and petroleum. But by developing new materials, we can take advantage of solar power beaming down at the present instead and not cause global warming and air pollution.

Systems, not substances. Another challenge for chemistry is to focus more on interacting chemical systems, not just individual substances. As an example, chemists isolated DNA and learned its structure more than 50 years ago. But that does not really tell us how life works or how we could imitate life. Life is a process in which many substances interact in organized systems, and chemistry is in its infancy in understanding these systems. For example, bacteria are quite simple living organisms, but we don’t yet know exactly how to mimic them or build on their functions with our own created, synthetic systems. Chemists will do this one day, and we will build self-reproducing molecular machines that could change our world.

In thinking about how we might achieve these dreams, one realizes that chemists have a general problem. We are creative scientists constantly making new molecules and materials, which means we must also be mindful of their impacts. That is why green and sustainable chemistry will always be in our future. We have to get better at anticipating and avoiding possible side effects or imparting unexpected toxicities to our air and water. This is yet another good reason to be a chemist: We can understand and solve such problems. Many other scientific fields have no such challenge—who has heard of green astronomy or green algebraic topology?

To prepare for our future, chemists must broaden their training, rather than be so specialized. To develop cures, we need to know more about modern biology, along with having a better understanding of the role of both organic and inorganic chemistry in disease treatment. Chemists who invent new materials need a strong foundation in solid-state physics and physical chemistry to couple with their knowledge of organic and inorganic chemistry. In short, chemistry must continue to be the creative and useful science; it must not become the narrow science.

As I think about the future for chemistry, I only wish I could be around to see these challenges met and for new ones not yet imagined to emerge for our science to address. I envy the young people today who realize how important these next challenges are and how exciting it will be to work on them. One last thing is to figure out how older chemists like me could do it all over again. That will be a more difficult challenge.  


Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

 

Share your vision for the future of chemistry below.

 
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Comments
Anthony Czarnik (Mon May 02 03:37:26 EDT 2016)
Bravo! One does not understand a complex chemical process- such as life- until we can create it from the constituent elements. We are far from that goal!

It does not help us achieve this compelling 'lunar mission' when, last year, a Nobel official declared that, "Chemistry is Biology and Biology, Chemistry." Biochemistry, biological chemistry, bioorganic chemistry, bioinorganic chemistry, and biomimetic chemistry are all fields of Chemistry. Chemical biology is a field of Biology.
Théophile Gaudin (Tue May 03 04:37:24 EDT 2016)
I agree that chemistry, in general, has to cope with complexity of its studied systems (atomes, molecules, their interacitons). Computational resources have to be used in a more routine way to help this. There is still a need of economical methods in this area. The simplest example, closest to our everyday life experience, is solids. Solids are everywhere around us. However, we don't have any economical, physically founded, and robust way to model solids from a molecular point of view, that could help us adressing many challenges including those mentioned in the article.
Jeffrey S. Meisner (Fri May 27 12:52:47 EDT 2016)
Wonderful encouragement to avoid a becoming a narrow science. Chemistry has been broadening significantly since the late 20th century giving rise to a new generation of highly collaborative scientists. The near future of the field will be an exciting time for the field!

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment