Biology and ChE: Applying a Molecular Science (Part II)

7/12   in the series We Are ChE: Entering a Golden Age
My previous post was about how ChE has advanced bioprocessing and medicine. Here, I want to reflect on how bioscience and ChE have changed each other.

Biology is transformed

Two particular developments in the early 1950s set the stage for transforming biology and for biology's transforming ChE. One was discovering the double-helix molecular nature of DNA, due to Rosalind Franklin, Maurice Wilkins, James Watson, and Francis Crick; the latter three won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine. The other was the collection of Henrietta Lacks' cervical-cancer cells, which provided part of the basis for modern tissue culturing. The transformation was set in motion after Richard Nixon proposed the "War on Cancer" in 1971. This campaign was driven by a hope for cures, but that proved rather elusive. Some cures were developed. Viruses were targeted but proved to cause only a few cancers. Interferon was expected to become a miracle drug, but it only helped with some cancers. Instead, in hindsight, the spinoffs from the War on Cancer have had the greatest impacts, much like Kennedy's Race to the Moon had its biggest worldwide impact in spinning off the microelectronics and computer revolution. Consider just a few of the scientific outcomes: the Polymerase Chain Reaction method, gene-splicing, induced pluripotent stem cells, the Human Genome Project, and relating molecular patterns to traits through genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, transcriptomics, and so on.

The new biology has transformed ChE

Harvey Blanch

These developments have transformed ChE as well. The natural fit of existing ChE expertise and the molecular underpinnings of biology are two reasons, as discussed in the previous post. Harvey Blanch of UC Berkeley, honored by the 2010 James E. Bailey Award of AIChE's Society of Biological Engineering, captured the sweep of change in bioprocessing due to these developments in his lecture and webinar "From Biochemical Engineering to Synthetic Biology: A Short History of Engineering Impacts on Biotechnology."

Carol Hall

Another reason is the powerful motivation of advancing personal and public health. My friend and colleague Carol Hall spoke movingly in her 2006 Institute Lecture about how her molecular simulation of fibril formation has been motivated in large part by her parents' experiences with Alzheimer's disease. The new opportunities to make health-care impacts have pulled many ChEs toward medical school and into ChE bioscience. The new bioscientific insights have also pointed to new molecularly driven biotechnologies and to additional scientific advances. A few examples:

Jackie Shanks
  • Metabolic engineering. Understanding metabolic pathways and physiology is aided by measuring and modeling flux balances around organs and organisms. In turn, it propels product-yield enhancement and points to opportunities for desirable genetic modifications. The work of Jackie Shanks at Iowa State illustrates these approaches, targeted at increasing plant production of anticancer agents using chemical analyses and math models.
  • Systems biology. A closely related field is systems biology, which relies heavily on computational models of biological systems. The NIH has created ten National Centers for Systems Biology, whose diversity illustrates the interdisciplinary requirements of the field. Much of the work resembles reactor modeling with detailed kinetics networks but with systems such as cells or signaling-pathway networks used to develop and to test hypotheses.

    Juergen Hahn

    ChE process dynamics and control approaches have been applied to examine the nonlinear behaviors that are common. An example from UC-Santa Barbara is Frank Doyle's systems-biology models of circadian rhythms, resolving the difference between the animal-scale cycle and the cellular scale. Similarly, RPI's Juergen Hahn has built a comprehensive model for the signaling pathways involved in inflammatory response of the liver to trauma.

  • Synthetic biology. The processes and substances of natural biology can be varied to create new substances and properties. At Caltech, David Tirrell's lab

    Frances Arnold

    has modified natural proteins by substituting newly created amino acids and has crafted artificial genes to make new proteins, while Frances Arnold's lab uses directed evolution to understand biological design and create new, synthetic enzymes.

Dan Hammer
  • Polymersomes. These synthetic nanoparticles are made with blockcopolymers to mimic vesicles, bubble-like spherical membranes that cells use to transport materials across cell walls. Dan Hammer and Dennis Discher of the University of Pennsylvania have been leaders in developing polymersomes for uses in drug delivery and imaging.

A core part of ChE

In the 1950s, some ChEs were using conventional reactor engineering and separations for bioprocessing. It was part of the profession, but it was just one of many facets. That has changed dramatically. The overlap of biology and chemistry and materials science as molecular sciences has made bioscience and its application into parts of the intellectual core of ChE. These advances by ChEs will continue to be significant. Twenty-five thought leaders from across ChE contributed to a 2008 AIChE centennial vision of the next 25 years. They predicted a range of bioscience and biotechnology impacts for ChE, from making sustainable fuels and chemicals at ambient temperatures and pressures to creating the diagnostics, information science, and medications for truly personalized medicine. These exciting advances are part of the onset of a new Golden Age of Chemical Engineering. Next, I'll consider the role of computers and ChE cyberinfrastructure.


Terry Papoutsakis of the University of Delaware described a similarly expansive view of bioscience in chemical engineering in his Jay Bailey Award lecture last week, "Generating Complex Biological Traits through Combinatorial and Multigenome Expansion of the Sampling Space." Terry's interests illustrate this wide range: metabolic engineering, systems biology, experimental and computational genomics, stem-cell biology, and production of biofuels and chemicals from biomass.

Biology Kid's picture

I am aiming to go through molecular sciences in future. Lets see what happens.