Chemistry to play major role in solving 21st century challenges

December 06, 1999

Chemical & Engineering News Explores Five Fundamental - and Controversial - Areas Critical to Humanity's Survival

Life as we know it today wouldn't be possible without chemistry, and chemistry and chemical scientists will be indispensable to progress in the new millennium.

This is the message of a "Millennium Special Report: Chemistry In The Service Of Humanity," published in the Dec. 6 issue of Chemical & Engineering News. C&EN is the weekly newsmagazine of the world's largest scientific society, the American Chemical Society, with nearly 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers among its members.

"Chemistry's vitality and capabilities have never been more apparent, nor in more demand, than now as we prepare to enter the 21st century, says Madeleine Jacobs, editor-in-chief of Chemical & Engineering News. "Although it is impossible to capture in one issue the full breadth of chemistry's potential contributions to society, we settled on these five fundamental areas of critical importance to humanity's survival, now and in the future."

As the year 2000 approaches, Chemical & Engineering News editors examine five areas in which chemists and the chemical industry can be expected to play key roles in improving everyday life in the future: building a sustainable environment and chemical industry, feeding the world, unlocking the secrets of neuroscience, ensuring security from biological and chemical threats, and providing clean water. In each of these cases, the promise of science in solving intractable problems has sparked controversy, which is far from resolved.

The Millennium Special Report also features the prognostications of more than six dozen luminaries of the chemical enterprise. Taken together, their "Millennial Musings" create a forecast of chemistry's impact in the next century.

Following are the highlights of the issue:

Consumers Fear Genetically Modified Foods

The ability to splice and transfer genes to grow more nutritional crops with less impact on the environment has excited farmers and scientists alike. But some consumers, particularly in Europe, fear such genetic manipulation could produce foods unsafe for consumption and harmful to the environment.

Farmers with corn crops destined for European markets have been hard hit; what was a large and profitable export crop has withered like so many rows of drought-stricken, dried corn stalks. One producer of pet foods says it won't use genetically modified crops in its products, as have two makers of baby foods.

Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, is concerned the controversies may "so polarize consumers, producers, industry and government in both developed and developing countries that it will be impossible for developing countries to realize benefits from plant technology," according to the article.

"The ensuing controversies could delay exploitation of what the advocates of agricultural biotechnology claim to be its enormous potential for helping to feed the world - and feed it better today - as world population surges from six billion to maybe eight or 10 billion in the next 50 years," writes editor-at-large Michael Heylin.

A New Hippocratic Oath?

Biotechnology has enabled scientists, technicians and doctors to assemble an impressive arsenal to fight disease and hunger and, potentially, to correct devastating genetic disorders. The ability to manipulate genes "could [also] lead to the development of genetically engineered pathogens, toxins and biomodulators as weapons targeted to specific ethnic groups," writes senior correspondent Lois Ember.

Jonathan Tucker of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who served as a U.N. inspector in Iraq, calls upon scientists to help develop international treaties and "broad-spectrum antimicrobial drugs" as defenses against biological weapons. "A new professional ethic - analogous to the Hippocratic oath - that forbids the misuse of human genetic information to inflict injury or death" should be considered by scientists, he says.

William Haseltine, chairman and CEO of Human Genome Science in Rockville, Md., believes research into genomics offers "more hope than cause for concern." He says "our ability to defend ourselves against such attacks will outstrip anyone's ability to create new, more deadly organisms."

Chemistry Key to Treating Neurological Diseases

Another section of the magazine explores chemistry's increasingly vital role in understanding and treating neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, paralysis and stroke - the third leading cause of death in the United States.

The 1990s, the "Decade of the Brain," were marked by major research strides in revealing how the brain and nervous system work. Future progress in neurological research will rely on chemistry for a better understanding of molecular pathways, interconnections among nerve cells and, ultimately, turning these discoveries into cures, says senior editor Mairin Brennan.

"The spate of information that gushed through the 1990s laid the foundation for extraordinary contributions to the treatment of brain disease in the 21st century," Brennan writes. "But it also underscored the complexity of the brain and the challenges that lie ahead in mapping its underlying biology."

Chemical Companies Embrace Sustainable Development

Sustainable development, the pursuit of economic development while benefiting the environment and improving the quality of life, is becoming a major goal of chemical companies, reports senior editor Marc Reisch.

"Sustainable development is a concept just now coming into its own after nearly three decades of fitful progress toward such a notion," writes Reisch. "It is in part a response to environmental activists' objections to corporate manufacturing and business practices dating at least to the 1970s when dioxin spills and use of the defoliant Agent Orange frightened and concerned many people."

Whether chemical companies will actually meet this challenge remains to be seen. If they succeed, Reisch remarks, "it will be the chemical industry's best opportunity in the 21st century to permanently change the reality and the perception of this much beleaguered but vitally important industry."

The article highlights the efforts of two major chemical companies, Dow and DuPont, which are striving to put theory into practice in the areas of economic growth, environmental balance and social progress

A Global View of Earth's Water

"The story of water is really two stories. Water for the rich and water for the poor," writes C&EN contributing editor Wil Lepkowski.

In well-heeled countries, water is cheap and clean and "the task is to keep it clean, keep it available, keep out pollutants and watch out for toxic surprises," says Lepkowski. "It is virtually a crime in the rich world to allow fecal matter in the water supply," he writes. "In the poor world, it can hardly be avoided."

On top of that, water often is more expensive in lower-income areas. Peter Gleick, author of The World's Water, says "the poor often already pay far more for private, poor quality services than the wealthy do for structured, piped water systems, which are often subsidized by the governments."

Today, 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion people lack sufficient - much less clean -water for irrigation and consumption. By 2025, this number is expected to grow by an additional 2.5 billion people, writes Lepkowski.

Water chemists and other experts are now starting to take a more global view of water - "looking at the waters of the earth as an interconnected whole," notes the magazine. Gleick believes that in the long run, we must require a "new ethic" that is sustainable - one that involves getting more from less without causing harm.

It will take about $50 billion a year to meet the minimal water needs of the world's people, by Gleick's estimate. "This is still far below the actual societal costs of the failure to provide these services," he adds.
-end-
A nonprofit organization with a membership of nearly 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. (www.acs.org )

American Chemical Society

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