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This evening, at the ISACS Challenges in Chemical Biology event in Boston, I was part of a conversation suggesting that the concept of chemical biology needed a rebrand. The kids aren’t into chemical biology any more, that scene’s old, man. Of course earlier in the day, I’d been discussing how ‘molecular biologists’ have become ‘chemical biologists’ as the understanding of chemical mechanisms in biology has improved.
The truth is that over the last 48 hours I’ve watched talk after talk illustrating how the mechanics of life are molecular. They are chemical. Bacteria talk to each other using small molecules and peptides that interact with specific residues in a protein, that induces a conformational change, which changes the protein’s available residues within the cell which… and then… and that activates the hydrogen of… etc. The chemical modification of histones by enzyme x alters the reaction landscape of genes by… and so on.
Understanding biology and disease today requires looking at the chemical reactions of biomolecules, how one change can alter the mechanistic pathways downstream, and how to altering those interactions can alter outcomes. Some people might call themselves epigeneticists, some might say microbiologists and some might talk about studying cancer but the common thread is that they are looking at the chemical reactions and interactions within biological systems.
I don’t think this diminishes chemistry, it shows how fundamental the understanding of molecules still is. This work isn’t on the fringes of chemistry, it is chemistry. The phrase chemical biology was perhaps conceived as a branding exercise in and of itself and perhaps that has been exclusionary to some. Certainly one of the speakers today, Stuart Schreiber, continues to divide opinion (have a look at the comments under Derek Lowe’s post from Schreiber’s session to see what I mean).
Maybe though, we should just get over what the science calls itself. Is it interesting, relevant, exciting? Great. Let’s judge the science, but not get hung up on what it’s called.