|MILLENNIUM SPECIAL REPORT
Volume 77, Number 49
CENEAR 77 49 p.
|[Special Report page 1][Musings page 2]
The products of chemical innovation will affect people's lives in every way in the next centuryfrom the environment and energy production and use to entertainment and quality of life. However, the largest impact will be on the human body. The impact will come about from understanding and controlling biochemical processes on a molecular level and from the synthesis and/or processing of new materials designed on a molecular level and produced efficiently on a large scale. First from the Iron Age and then the Silicon Age, we will next progress to the Molecular Age, one of understanding the smallest interactions of complex systems. The chemical enterprise's biggest impact will be on worldwide life expectancy and the quality of our extended lifetimes. Chemists will continue to explore the molecular mechanisms that regulate, enhance, or limit biochemical pathways. We will prevent genetic diseases by chemically locking or repairing the specific gene that causes them. We will combat cancers by unraveling their chemical pathways and uniquely controlling their growth mechanisms on the molecular level. Previously needy populations will benefit from the economic effectiveness of pharmaceutical innovations in specific drug design and delivery. Materials designed for biocompatibility will improve skin grafting and fluid transport as well as provide synthetic organs with specific molecular recognition that are not rejected by the body. We'll know the wondrous chemical mechanisms of the brain such as memory and trauma response, which will open doors to understanding learning and perception and lead to treatments for degenerative diseases of the nervous system and for psychological or mental health disorders including depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior. While the ethical dilemmas associated with differentiating "treatment" from "enhancement" will provide for heated social debate, the unique molecular perspective that chemists provide and bring to biology and engineering will change our perceptions of life, aging, and health.
Starting in 1994, a group of technical and business leaders undertook a study to define the factors affecting the global competitiveness of the chemical industry and to develop a vision for its future. Initially, a driving force behind this study was a request by the Office of Science & Technology Policy for industry guidance on how R&D funding could be better spent to advance the manufacturing base of the U.S. economy. Later, the scope of the vision was broadened to encompass all facets of the chemical industry's technology and manufacturing competitiveness. After two years, a report was issued entitled "Technology Vision 2020The U.S. Chemical Industry." Sponsors and supporters of this report included the American Chemical Society, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the Council for Chemical Research, the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association, and the Department of Energy. The recommendations stemming from the report are being pursued by holding workshops and developing road maps of change. Four segments of the chemical business that were addressed are new chemical and engineering technology, supply-chain management, information systems, and manufacturing and operations. To date, the bulk of the effort to implement Vision 2020 has been the new chemical and engineering technology segment. However, no systematic program exists to follow up on the recommendations resulting from the development of a road map. There is a need to summarize and publicize the successes of Vision 2020 if it is to continue to be the vehicle that provides the industry with growth and competitive advantage into the future. Focus now needs to move downstream of the workshop-road map effort and into the implementation phase. Further cooperation among the industry group sponsors, government labs, and academe also needs to take place. There is no other document like this in the chemical industry. We need to make this one work.
One of the most important unsolved scientific problems that chemistry should play a central role in is the origin of life. Recently, a system with orderone of the remarkable characteristics of lifehas been demonstrated to appear on computer display from a disordered system by selecting an appropriate program. However, such a "virtual" system has no relation to the substances that constitute life existing on Earth. Physics tends to give less concern about particular substances, while biology deals with specific behaviors of particular types of substances. Chemistry, on the other hand, is free from these limitations and can even create a variety of substances that would have played an essential role on the way to the origin of lifethat is, chemical evolution. Thus, the development of studies related to chemical evolution should bring about a new evolution of chemistry, emphasizing the identity of chemistry from other disciplines. The current examples of related studies are biomimetic chemistry and supramolecular chemistry. The development of these areas can lead to the resolution of the fundamental origin-of-life problem. There is even the possibility of the creation of a new ordered "living" system independent of existing life. It must be emphasized that such an "evolution of chemistry" should also find new applications, for example, as an information carrier based on a single molecule or artificial nucleic acid.
I believe that the largest impact in the next century will be the development, by medicinal chemists, of treatments for the most serious diseases that shorten our life span. Living to age 120 will not be unusual, and at that point we will have to rethink how human life is organizedindeed we have to rethink it now. When pension systems were put in place we did not expect most people to live as long as they now do, so we don't yet know what to do with people who have nominally reached retirement age but who should still be contributing, not coasting. How will we handle even greater life expectancy in another 40 years or so? The idea that people in their 60s should change from careers to hobbies will become more obviously preposterous. Longer life will have a positive impact, of course, but it will also pose challenges to our social systems that we will have to address.
The next decade will be marked by major advances in nanotechnology. Emerging analytical methods for routinely preparing and manipulating structures with truly molecular dimensions but that canvass macroscopic distances will become routine laboratory tools. Chemists will be at the forefront of these advances, and soft materials that are prepared based on a firm understanding of molecular recognition principles will be a significant part of the enabling technology. This does not necessarily mean that organic computers will be commonplace at the end of the next decade, but the idea of programming the formation of new types of electronic and photonic devices from organic and biological building blocks will be realized and utilized by 2010. The routine ability to control the placement of soft organic and inorganic structures on surfaces with nanometer precision also will enable one to ask and answer key questions in the areas of catalysis, molecular biology, and surface science. For example, it will be literally possible to print out catalysts on a surface such that the features that comprise them are at the optimum distances and configurations with respect to each other to effect a desired transformation on a particular molecule. This approach may or may not displace conventional catalysts, but without a doubt such types of nanostructures will provide a better understanding of what makes for a good catalyst and will open avenues to entire new types of technology. Major advances in rapid screening assays for all types of molecules, but biomolecules in particular, also will result from such advances. In 2010, the 1990s version of a high-density oligonucleotide array used in a gene chip will be viewed in the same way we currently view the original 8088 computers.
Who will be doing chemistry as we approach the year 2100? Think how the face of chemistry has changed since 1900. At that time, chemists were predominantly male and concentrated in the Western world. Colleges for women were in their infancy and universities were just beginning to admit women. However, jobs for women were difficult to obtain and higher education was restricted to the fortunate few. The education of women has undergone drastic changes in the 20th century, and many doors have been opened. I would like to think that this progress will continue and that by 2100 young girls will eagerly consider scientific careers, there will be many more outstanding female scientists, and it will no longer be unusual for women to head large research groups or win prestigious awards. The faces of these women (and of men) will also be different. Hopefully, ethnicity, race, and social status will not stand in the way of defining our future scientists. Population diversity will exist in developed countries, and I hope that the scientific enterprise will grow in nations where little exists today. Science will be truly global, with chemistry a worldwide enterprise practiced by the brightest minds, regardless of their citizenship or background. Facilitating these developments will be a desire to continue the enormous scientific progress of the 20th century. The stunning changes occurring in global communication and information science will help. This is, of course, an optimistic view. But why not begin the century with the hope that the world's brightest minds will be used for the benefit of all and not lost for artificial reasons.
The dominant raw material for the chemical industry in the next century? Clearly it will have to be recyclable materialsdomestic garbage, industrial waste, and contaminated water. Already some conventional low-cost feedstocks are becoming scarce and less secure. As prices rise, clever companies will recognize that the mountains of waste we generate can be economically exploited. Today's recycling industry is still in its infancy, with little substantial backing from major industrial producers. Eventually, companies such as DuPont and Exxon will realize that it will be economically advantageous to produce new materials from used materials rather than from expensive new resources such as oil shales or biologicals diverted from food production. Technology development will be, as always, the key. Unlocking the riddle of waste recovery is not a fashionable pursuit in many research enterprises today, but it would be a wise step for chemists and engineering professionals to begin preparing our education and research establishments for this challenge. Companies that wish to be strong in the next century should likewise begin to preparethe profit potential is huge, with the consequences of not adapting to this reality perhaps meaning certain demise.
Chemistry and biology are intimately connected, and will become even more so. The second Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded in 1902, went to Emil Fischer for his elucidation of the chemical structure of biologically important sugars and purines. Building on the work of Fischer and many others, chemists during the past century have become remarkably adept at synthesizing molecules. In recent years, many chemists have turned to the synthesis of more complex one-, two-, and three-dimensional structuresareas of research that go by the names of nanoscale chemistry and supramolecular chemistry. New experimental techniques have allowed rapid advances in imaging and manipulating individual molecules on the nanoscale, and new computational techniques permit the prediction of the properties of supramolecular systems before they are actually made. During the next 10 years, as chemists master these techniques, it will be possible to design supramolecular systems that can carry drugs to the precise points in the body where they are needed. Chemists will be able to tailor surfaces with catalytic properties to permit energy-efficient and environmentally benign industrial-scale syntheses. They also will develop nanoscale systems that mimic living systems' ability to, for example, produce energy from sunlight or fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Chemists also will develop self-replicating molecular systems to provide insights into the molecular origins of life. As long as our national investment in fundamental research remains healthy and viable, the steady progress will continuefrom understanding the structures of biologically important molecules at the beginning of this century through the development of polymers at midcentury to the development of rational drug design in recent years.
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