A look at the program for the Lindau meetings this year indicates to me that the topics of the presentations and talks could be roughly split into three categories, by no means mutually exclusive. The kinds of topics that are covered also indicate the diversity of research that chemistry involves itself in.
1. Personal talks: These involve personal research and other perspectives. Notable among these are NMR pioneer Richard Ernst’s interesting perspective on pursuing interests other than science and aquaporin discoverer Peter Agre’s accounts of investigating water distribution and storage in natural systems by kayaking in the Arctic.
2. Research talks: Some talks are more or less exclusively focused on research work, either work that led up to the laureates’ Nobel Prize or that followed the receipt of the prize. Notable among these talks are Noyori’s, Ertl’s and Schrock’s talks on catalysis, Ciechanover and Huber’s talks on protein degradation, Walker’s talk on ATPase and last year’s laureates’ talks on imaging in biology especially in the context of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP)
3. Perspectives on science and society: These talks span the gamut of general topics, ranging from science education to the future of nanotechnology to sustainable energy. Nobelist Walter Kohn’s presentation talks about alternative energy, especially focusing on wind and solar power. The ‘ozone men’ Crutzen and Roland narrate the story of greenhouse gases and climate change. Nobelist Harold Kroto talks about the emerging role of chemistry and nanotechnology in the future of humanity.
The scope of the topics that are going to covered speaks volumes about the astounding breadth of the discipline of chemistry. Chemistry is sometimes berated for not provide the deep and profound perspective that physics and biology provide us. Yet the topics of this year’s Lindau meetings clearly indicate that both physics and biology intimately rest on chemistry’s pillars. The most significant way in which chemistry differs from other sciences is in its ability to produce new substances of myriad variety and utility that did not exist before. This unprecedented ability has immensely contributed to the standard of life that we enjoy today.
The value of chemistry for biology, while by no means an end in itself, should especially be always appreciated. As Nobelist Roger Kornberg said in an interview, “the best chance that we have of understanding biology at a practical level is at the level of chemistry”. The word “practical” is operative here. Ultimately all of biology can be reduced to quarks and gluons in theory. But only in theory. Understanding how protons are built up from quarks does not directly lead to an understanding of how DNA replicates itself. But understanding how the molecular components of DNA interact with each other, essentially an understanding grounded in chemistry, takes us much closer to deciphering DNA replication. The proliferation of technologies based on DNA manipulation such as Western blots, fingerprinting and genomic sequencing is another testament to chemistry; the molecular engines that drive these technologies essentially consist of chemical reactions.
One of the most important roles that chemistry has played in our history is in the discovery of new medicines. In the twenty-first century, chemistry forms an unprecedented alliance with molecular biology and genomics to provide further insight into therapeutic intervention. It is not possible to do this unless we understand the basics of protein structure and function. As Laureate Wuthrich’s title indicates, understanding the protein universe through structural genomics would go a long way in doing this.
The process of self-assembly which is really the key to understanding the basis of the molecular interactions in life is essentially a chemical process. While covalent bond formation undoubtedly is the starting point for the generation of molecular raw materials, the self-assembly process primarily involves weak interactions like the hydrophobic effect and hydrogen bonds and must have been paramount during the formation of life. Even though we don’t understand yet how life formed from the primordial soup, the best chance we have of understanding the fundamental interactions that led to the first self-replicating systems is at the level of chemistry. To accomplish this understanding, a variety of chemical tools and disciplines from ab initio quantum chemistry to organic synthesis have converged on the problem.
At the same time let me not overstate the importance of chemistry here. Understanding chemical interactions is by no means going to lead us to an understanding of reciprocal altruism in honeybees for instance. Such ‘metalevel’ understanding is as far from protein synthesis as protein synthesis is from quantum chromodynamics. And yet an understanding of chemistry is necessary if we want to decipher the code of life. If not a sufficient condition, it is in many ways a necessary one.
In an era where sustainable energy is going to be not just a fashionable buzzword but a core essential of our existence, chemistry again emerges as a central science. From the manufacturing of materials for solar cells to the harvesting of microorganisms that could provide fuels, chemistry again acts as an enabling science. It is going to be a key player in the mitigation of climate change that is on everyone’s minds today. The panel discussion on the last day on “Science and Sustainability” is an indication of the emerging role of chemistry in tackling energy conservation and global climate change.
The role of chemistry in providing some of the basic necessities of life like drugs, polymers, detergents and agricultural chemicals is of course well-acknowledged; indeed so well-acknowledged and all-pervasive that we tend to take it for granted.
I like to think of chemistry then as the lights, sound, camera, costumes and editing behind the play or movie. The diversity of these contributions is very well demonstrated by the Lindau talks. And sometimes chemistry can actually emerge as the director and the actor.
|» Ashutosh Jogalekar studied chemistry and is currently a postdoctoral fellow.|