In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman gave a landmark lecture
In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman gave a landmark lecture suggesting that ’there’s plenty of room at the bottom’, where he set out a vision of the science that would become nanotechnology.
Today, chemists and biologists are looking at the space between their own disciplines and asking big questions about where science at the interface might lead them.
One area which is yielding rich pickings for chemists is synthetic biology. Faster, cheaper methods of sequencing and synthesising DNA have led to a boom in the field, which aims to undertake biological engineering at a much grander scale than tweaking single genes.
Radically altering an organism’s biochemistry so that it produces useful drugs or fuels could become a common method that replaces some traditional chemical process. Modifying the chemistry of life in other ways - introducing unnatural amino acids, or developing different ways of storing genetic information - might also create potentially useful new organisms. Indeed, scientists such as Craig Venter believe that artificial life forms could be made in the lab very soon. And developing ’plug and play’ sets of genes which can be transferred into organisms - one of the key goals for synthetic biologists - depends on chemists to analyse their output, ensuring that their biochemistry is fully joined up with the rest of the cell.
There is still plenty of more fundamental chemistry to be sorted out, though. As Peter Seeberger of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) explains (see p29), making complex carbohydrates and studying their role in biology remains a major challenge. The sugar chemists’ toolbox still lacks versatile techniques for automated oligosaccharide synthesis, for example.
Yet the interface between chemistry and biology can be a tricky place to work (see p6, and ’Mutual understanding’, p38). Traditional funding routes can seem less suited to supporting interdisciplinary research, while simple barriers such as unfamiliar jargon can deter many scientists from collaborating with colleagues outside their own department.
Improving the training we give PhD students could be one solution. It’s all too easy for graduate students’ horizons to be narrowed to the point where they are unaware of anything outside their own corner of science. The most successful interface scientists are those who are always looking for ways that their own work connects with other, sometimes surprising, fields.
’There is a narrow professional spirit which may grow up among men of science,’ warned James Clerk Maxwell in 1871. ’Surely a university is the very place where we should be able to overcome this tendency of men to become, as it were, granulated into small worlds. We lose the advantage of having men of varied pursuits collected into one body, if we do not endeavour to imbibe some of the spirit even of those whose special branch of learning is different from our own.’
It seems to me that chemistry often shines brightest when breaking into the fertile ground that lies between disciplines. Let’s hope we can train ever more intrepid explorers.
After two years as editor of Chemistry World , I’m moving on to new challenges at a different publication. It’s been a privilege to work with so many talented people on the team, and to write for such a prestigious and enthusiastic readership.
Mark Peplow, editor