Cross-posted at ACS Chemical Biology

I often get asked, “what is Chemical Biology, anyways?” I’m sure we all get asked this question as it’s a relatively new field. The University of Michigan’s program in Chemical Biology is the first or one of the first free-standing programs in Chemical Biology and it was influenced by U of M being one of the first recipients of the NIH’s Chemistry-Biology Interface Training Program. 


One of my favorite things about my doctoral program (and the NIH training program) is how cohesive we are, despite our research diversity. We have people who do small molecule inhibitors, FRET on ribosomes, protein NMR, and even bioinorganic chemistry (like me!). I’ve often felt like an outlier in my program not only because I am probably the only person who spends any time thinking about inorganic chemistry the way an inorganic chemist would, but also working on some of the most basic research. But aside from that, I think one the things that brings us all together is the interdisciplinary techniques and training we have. Take me: I am academically-trained as a bio(inorganic)chemist, lab-trained as a microbiologist, but my current research requires not only biochemistry, but small molecule synthesis and a not insignificant amount of inorganic chemistry and spectroscopy. I’m practically the definition of a “jack of all traides, master of none.” And, perhaps I’m projecting here, but I feel like many of the pioneers of this field have felt that at one time or another, since many trained in one field and then crossed into another as they straddled the line and defined a new discipline. In fact, I’ve heard both Laura Kiessling and Dennis Dougherty say these types of things in talking about how they went from total organic synthesis to carbohydrate biosynthesis or physical organic chemistry to neuroreceptors. Now, we are beginning to see a new group of scientists, one who looked specifically for “Chemical Biology” programs when they applied for graduate school. How will this new generation of scientists change the field wither their thinking? I look forward to see how the field develops as people who explicitly trained in it for their PhDs graduate and begin their own research programs. I think people like these will bring a very different perspective, they will reside intellectually in the interdisciplinary rather create it. 


But I digress. Going back to the original question: “What is Chemical Biology?” I think most people would say, “applying chemistry (or chemical principles) to problems of biology.” But I like to use a slightly different framing, perhaps because I worry that it sounds like we’re mostly talking about organic synthesis. So I usually say, “a bottom-up approach, based on chemical principles and tools, to questions in biology.” I like this framing because it talks more about the methods than the questions, which is a major distinction. All scientists want to figure out how the world we live in works; the difference is sometimes more in how we answer the questions that we have rather than what questions we have.