How science fiction predicted recent high-tech developments in chemistry
(Reuters) – Real-world technologies are often predicted by science fiction. In 1927, the characters in the movie Metropolis called each other over a video link. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry hung flat-screen color monitors on the walls of the Enterprise decades before we did the same in our living rooms.
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The most obvious examples of technology in science fiction tend to focus on artificial intelligence, communications, and transportation. But science fiction writers also like futuristic chemistry. For example, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World centers on a chemical antidepressant.
In recent years, we have witnessed incredible advances in chemical technology, so much so that as a chemist I often think of some of my favorite writings when reading about the latest breakthroughs.
While environmental issues are a common theme in science fiction, few address the decline of plastic. One exception is the 1972 novel Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters. This story about plastic-digesting bacteria would have seemed far-fetched just a few years ago. After all, plastics have only been around for about 80 years, which doesn’t seem long enough for nature to evolve a mechanism to eat them.
However, plastics are carbon-based compounds much like natural polymers like collagen (in animals), cellulose (in plants), and beeswax. Over the millennia, bacteria and fungi have developed many biochemical tools to remove carbon from all dead organisms.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when, in 2016, scientists searching a recycling plant in Kyoto, Japan, found bacteria literally feeding on plastic bottles. Since then, various other research groups have isolated the digestive enzymes involved and refined them to make them more effective. The hope is that we can use these modified natural systems to clean up our plastic mess.
The most recent attempts to do so have a distinctly futuristic air. A group in Austin, Texas, has injected the structure of digestive enzymes into a neural network. This artificial intelligence predicted that the best parts of the enzyme would be changed to improve its efficiency. Following AI’s advice, the group produced an enzyme that completely broke down a plastic basket in just a couple of days.
Chemical engineers are already developing large-scale recycling plants using bacteria. The bacteria in Mutant 59 were also created in a lab, but let’s hope that’s where the parallels end. In the novel, bacteria escape and wreak havoc, tearing our world apart, breaking down the plastic infrastructure that holds society together.
From William Gibson’s Neuromancer to The Expansion series, tank-grown meat is a common sight in science fiction. Characters are rarely happy with the result, often complaining that synthetic meat is a poor substitute for real meat.
Many artificial meat products are already on our supermarket shelves, but most of them are plant-based ingredients mixed together to mimic the taste and texture of meat. As a vegetarian, I like them a lot. But they are easy to distinguish from the real meat of my memories.
Growing meat in tanks is another matter. It’s more like brewing, but using animal cells instead of yeast. This process requires people with a good understanding of cell biology, nutritional chemistry, and chemical engineering.
The process begins with the cultivation of a cell-dense broth. The nutrient mix in the tank changes, which leads to the differentiation of cells into tissue types: muscle, connective tissue, fat cells. Finally, the cells coalesce into what looks like meat pulp, which is harvested and processed into nuggets, burgers, and the like. The advantage, of course, is that you get something with the texture, flavor, and nutrition of meat, but without the slaughter.
In 2013, the first edible burger made this way cost $300,000. Nine years later, costs plummeted and investors poured in billions of dollars. The industry is ready to start selling its products and is just waiting for the regulatory framework to be established. Singapore led the way in cultured meat approvals in 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration recently gave its approval, and UK and EU regulators are not far behind.
However, sometimes the aspirations of real science struggle to move forward from their fictional inspiration. In 2003, 19-year-old Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos. Ten years later, the company was worth $10 billion.
Holmes raised funds by promising to offer revolutionary technology that could provide a quick and inexpensive diagnosis of everything from a drop of blood. The idea seemed closer to the medical scanners in Star Trek’s infirmaries than anything in reality. And it turned out that Holmes’s promises were criminally exaggerated, for which he received 11 years in prison for fraud.
The Theranos story may have shattered investor confidence in the lab-on-a-chip technology that Holmes advocated. But in fact, we are already quite familiar with them in the form of COVID lateral flow tests. An even more unusual real-life example reminded me of the near-instantaneous DNA sequencing shown in the 1997 film Gattaca.
In early 2022, at Stanford University, a small team of researchers sequenced the entire human genome in just five minutes. Compare that to the 13 years it took to sequence the first human genome, published in 2003. This could help speed up the diagnosis of rare diseases from years to hours.
These amazing advances in diagnostics, processing and food production are just some of the areas of chemistry that were once considered science fiction. Many others such as high-density batteries that allow you to charge faster and less, atmosphere purification technology to remove C0