The A(H5N1) Conundrum
Jan04

The A(H5N1) Conundrum

Are there some experiments that should never be carried out? Is there some knowledge that is too dangerous for humans to possess? Can the dissemination of knowledge, once it has been discovered, be limited to only a few people? These are some of the questions being raised by two papers from two virology groups that created an avian H5N1[A(H5N1)] influenza virus that is easily transmissible from mammal to mammal through the air. A federal advisory board has taken the unprecedented step of asking the journals Science and Nature not to publish details of the work to prevent them from becoming known to would-be bioterrorists (C&EN Latest News, Dec. 21, 2011). A(H5N1) doesn’t usually infect humans. Of the 600 or so humans who have contracted the virus in the past decade, apparently directly from infected birds, about 60% died, a rate frighteningly higher than the estimated 2% who died after contracting the Spanish flu in the devastating 1918 epidemic that killed 20 million people worldwide. The saving grace of A(H5N1), so far, is that it does not pass from human to human through the air. The work under review, done at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, by Yoshihiro Kawaoka and coworkers and at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, by Ron Fouchier and coworkers, was designed to find out whether A(H5N1) could evolve the ability to spread between mammals through the air. Fouchier presented some details of the work at a conference in Europe in September 2011.  From sketchy press reports it appears that infecting one ferret—the mammal model of choice for studying flu virus transmissibility among humans—with A(H5N1) and then taking virus from the infected ferret and infecting another eventually led to an A(H5N1) that could be transmitted from one ferret to another in an adjacent cage through the air. It’s been reported that a total of five mutations in the viral genome led to the air-transmissible A(H5N1). Some experts have now been quoted in press reports arguing that the research should never have been carried out in the first place, that creation of the transmissible A(H5N1) was irresponsible. That’s an untenable position. If there are a set of mutations that will make A(H5N1) transmissible among humans, then that set of mutations will one day occur in the wild. Better to know what those mutations are and be on the lookout for them in wild strains than to become aware of them once a pandemic has broken out. And if this is a virus we will someday face, it would be a good idea to begin to study its weaknesses. More complicated is the question of who...

Read More
A Measure of Progress
Dec19

A Measure of Progress

In “Transcendent Life?” I wrote about the philosophical essay, “Life Transcending Physics And Chemistry,” by Michael Polanyi that was the cover story of the Aug. 21, 1967, issue of C&EN. In this post, I want to take note of another interesting element I found in that issue, one that vibrantly illustrates progress humankind has made in the past half century. When we created the C&EN Archives, we optically scanned the more than 500,000 pages of C&EN that have been published since the magazine’s founding in 1923. This was, needless to say, a largely automated process that relied on a computer to discern breaks between stories in a given issue. Especially in older issues, that was not always obvious and there are lots of cases in the archive where some extraneous material was assembled as part of another story. That was the case with the Polanyi essay. Three pages not associated with the essay were included in the printout I read. One page was an ad for the 1967-68 ACS Laboratory Guide; one page was a directory of small ads for companies selling items ranging from Grignard reagents to stainless steel tanks; and one page was headed “Deaths.” It so happens that while I was occupied with the Aug. 21, 1967, issue of C&EN, I was also reading pages for the Dec. 5, 2011, issue of the magazine, and in that issue we ran four obituaries for Don C. DeJongh, 74; Edwin S. Gould, 85; Angelo C. Tulumello, 79; and Jay A. Young, 91. Here are the names and ages of the individuals listed in the Aug. 21, 1967, issue: Richard Kuhn, 66; James R. Vaughan Jr., 49; Augustus L. Barker, 79; Lee Cahn, 40; Ballard H. Clemmons, 58; Ira B. Cushing, 56; Thomas W. Delahanty, 75; Samuel L. Gross, 48; William H. MacHale, 59; Edward T. Radley, 48; Elmer W. Rebol, 49; Jesse L. Riebsomer, 61; and Garrett W. Thiessen, 65. Notice a difference? In the Dec. 5, 2011, issue the youngest person we ran an obituary for was 74 years old. And that’s not an anomaly. We are running nine obituaries in this issue, and the ages of the individuals are 92, 93, 59, 90, 86, 71, 71, 91, and 97. By contrast, in 1967, five of the death notices were for men in their 40s, three were for men in their 50s, and three were in their 60s. Of the 13 death notices that listed an age (a few did not), only two were for men over the age of 70. I doubt there was anything remarkable about that particular distribution. It is a testament to what...

Read More
The Cost of Prevention
Dec15

The Cost of Prevention

My wife Jan and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary recently by spending a long weekend in Chicago. Among the interesting things we did while we were there was to take a 90-minute architectural boat tour along the Chicago River sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Chicago is justifiably proud of its rich architectural heritage. Classic buildings like the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, and the Carbon & Carbide Building share the Chicago skyline with modern masterpieces like the Sears Tower (now the “Willis Tower”) and the soaring Trump International Hotel & Tower, the second tallest building in the U.S. and the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world. Real estate along the Chicago River, our docent told us, is now among the priciest in Chicago. It was not always thus. In the 19th century, the river was effectively an open sewer draining into Lake Michigan, from which Chicago drew its drinking water. Pollution of the lake led to outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid fever. In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow of the river using a system of locks so that it flowed into the newly built Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, diverting Chicago’s pollution into the Mississippi River system by way of the Des Plaines River. What the folks living downstream thought about this development wasn’t mentioned. That was a typical solution to a pollution problem in the first half of the 20th century—send it somewhere else. Happily for the Chicago River and many other bodies of water in the U.S., the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1948; the act was reorganized and expanded in 1972. After additional amendments in 1977, the law became known as the Clean Water Act. It is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.   That’s right, the Chicago River is now a pleasant body of water to take a boat trip on or walk beside or live next to in an expensive condominium because of regulations promulgated under a federal environmental law administered by the EPA. That’s the same EPA that Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said should be renamed the “Job Killing Organization of America.” The EPA of which candidate Jon Huntsman said that, in order for the U.S. to become prosperous again, it would be necessary to end “EPA’s regulatory reign of terror.” The EPA that candidate Newt Gingrich wants to eliminate entirely. One can draw an interesting parallel between bashing environmental regulation and the antipathy of some modern parents toward vaccinations. Parents afraid of vaccines invariably cite the “risks” associated with them when they argue against having their children vaccinated against all...

Read More
Influential Chemical Engineers
Dec14

Influential Chemical Engineers

Do you have a favorite chemical engineer? I received an e-mail from Claudia Flavell-While, Director of Publications, Institution of Chemical Engineers, which publishes a monthly magazine, tce, that read in part: We’ve just opened the voting on a mission to find some of the most influential chemical engineers in history, and we’d like to extend an invitation to your readers to take part. As you’re probably aware, tce for the past two years has run a series of articles in which we profile some of the  most interesting chemical engineers we can think of. Every year at the end of the year we invite the global chemical engineering community to cast their vote for who was the most influential featured that year. We’ve just opened the votes for the 2011 season and to make it as comprehensive a vote as possible, we’d like to invite the readers of Chemical Engineering to cast their votes too.   Our shortlisted entries this year are:   Yoshio Nishi (lithium-ion batteries) Nicholas Leblanc (soda production) Victor Mills (disposable diapers) Wilbert & Robert Gore (outdoor fabrics) Arthur D Little (unit operations) Charles E Howard & Norbert Rillieux (vacuum evaporation & multi-effect evaporators) Tomio Wada (LCD screens) Vladimir Haensel (platforming process) Reginald Gibson, Eric Fawcett, Michael Perrin & Dermot Manning (polyethylene)   You can find a summary of their entries with links to the full article at http://www.tcetoday.com/changedtheworld We are collecting votes here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/changedtheworld2011   Closing date for votes is 9 January and we’ll announce at the end of January who got the most votes.   Yes, Flavell-While confused C&EN and Chemical Engineering, but that’s OK. We can still have an opinion!...

Read More
Transcendent Life?
Dec09

Transcendent Life?

A reader recently wrote to ask whether she could purchase an article—specifically the cover story in the Aug. 21, 1967, issue—from the C&EN Archives. The answer, of course, is that she could, for $10. (As of January 2012, ACS members will be able to download 25 journal papers, book chapters, and C&EN Archives stories for free each year.) C&EN Deputy Editor-in-chief Maureen Rouhi got the e-mail, and she brought the article to my attention. Its title is “Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry,” and it is a 13-page, lavishly illustrated (for C&EN), philosophical essay by Michael Polanyi, one of the seminal scientist/philosophers of the 20th century. It is not the kind of essay I associate with C&EN. I spent most of that evening reading and re-reading Polanyi’s essay and thinking about it. He makes two central points early in the essay, the first concerning DNA. “A DNA molecule essentially transmits information to a developing cell,” he writes. “Similarly a book transmits information. But the transmission of the information cannot be represented in terms of chemical and physical principles. In other words, the operation of the book is not reducible to chemical terms. Since DNA operates by transmission of (genetic) information, its function cannot be described by chemical laws either.” He also writes, “I differ … from most biologists by holding that no mechanism—be it a machine or a machinelike feature of an organism—can be represented in terms of physics and chemistry. This principle precludes the possibility of biology ever becoming a molecular science.” I think it is clear that advances over the past 40 plus years show that Polanyi was wrong—biology has become a molecular science. What fascinates me is trying to understand why he was wrong because he was a very sophisticated thinker. In an argument that is far too complex to reprise here, Polanyi makes a strong case that the origin of any particular genetic sequence, and, by extension, the origin of life itself, cannot be explained on the basis of chemical and physical principles alone. However, when he uses the analogy between DNA and a book to state that transmission of genetic information “is nonchemical and nonphysical,” he is mistaken. Genetic information is encoded in DNA’s structure, and while we might not be able to determine the provenance of that information through chemical and physical principles, transcription itself is a profoundly chemical process that we now understand in quite some detail. Likewise, when Polanyi compares biological structures to machines and insists that both are irreducible to chemical and physical principles, he is arguing at the level of cells and organs. With the structure of a molecular machine...

Read More