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Origins Of Life


April 16, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 14


Letters to the editor

Chemistry and the public

Roman Bielski and Michal Tencer are rightly concerned that the general public is not captivated by chemistry compared with stories of the big bang and DNA (C&EN, March 8, 2021, page 3). They suggest that chirality might enchant the public when coupled to an origin-of-life story. We suggest that chirality and other concepts need a home in a much larger, chemistry-centric origin story. Sadly, chemists do not have one.

The reason is historical. Chemistry lost out on the structure of DNA to Francis Crick—a physicist—and James Watson—a biologist. Stanley Miller’s synthesis of amino acids by simulating electrical storms in prebiotic atmospheres might have provided a second chance but failed to catch fire, probably because the effort did not continue to proteins, nucleic acids, and the first living cells. Since then, the chemists’ origin-of-life story has expanded with the discovery of self-replicating and self-selecting RNA and the RNA-world hypothesis.

Unfortunately, some chemists mistakenly accept the vitalistic concept that molecules self-replicate and self-select (evolve) in cell-free prebiotic systems in the same way that they do in living cells. This mistaken view goes too far and not far enough. A robust chemistry-based origin-of-life story can regain the initiative and attract the general public to the beauty of biomacromolecules—highly concentrated and interacting within living cells.

Gary Pielak (Chapel Hill, North Carolina) and Jan Spitzer (Charlotte, North Carolina)

Per the letter to the editor “Public’s Interest in Chemistry,” chemistry does need to be better publicized and put in the awareness of the public. However, I believe the suggestion that the answer is the importance of chirality and its origin may be a little too arcane, especially since the origin of chirality is not certain and is being debated. Better to publicize the origin of bio- and living molecules from simple molecules found throughout space and certainly on early Earth. The 150th anniversary of the periodic table and the publicity surrounding it was good for the popularization of chemistry. The essential involvement of chemistry in the use of RNA COVID-19 vaccines, as described in the same issue as the letter, is also important to be publicized, as well as the involvement of chemistry in many other medical procedures.

R. E. Buntrock
Orono, Maine

In the letter “Public’s Interest in Chemistry,” the authors assert that there is no one chemical phenomenon that excites the public, nor is there a spokesperson who could carry the message. I disagree on the person aspect.

There are two gentlemen who come to mind as the promulgators of fascinating chemistry: Andrew Szydlo of the Royal Institution and Sir Martyn Poliakoff of the University of Nottingham. A quick YouTube search will bring up many hours of lecture demonstrations.

The two scientists have very different styles. Both are engaging. Both teach. Poliakoff is known for his Periodic Videos, short videos about the elements. Szydlo may be known for his 1½ h, completely captivating, no-notes lectures and demos.

John T. Cronin
Wilmington, Delaware

ACS services’ overlap with members’ jobs

I just received an email advertisement from the American Chemical Society, which is now offering Authoring Services, and I have concerns. I am a longtime member of the society and have performed many hours of volunteer service over the years, as do other members. As a freelance professional writer and editor, I feel a level of threat from the society as it offers services that are in direct competition with my livelihood. I know that I cannot be alone in this concern. It is curious how the society touts the benefits of membership regarding employment and career but then engages in activities that may have a real negative impact on the amount of work its members can generate. When I was helping as a coauthor of ACS textbooks, I would hear similar concerns from members who also published textbooks. At that time, I was told to inform them that ACS textbooks were created in order to push the text industry in terms of new pedagogy and that it was not the society’s intent to make a significant amount of money on texts. But as ACS strives to generate income in more and more areas that infringe on its members’ ability to earn, I would very much appreciate it if ACS executives could enlighten us and alleviate our concerns.

Carl E. Heltzel
Seneca, South Carolina



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