July 2007



Reading this blog (well, OK, reading anything) can protect you against brain damage from lead exposure. US researchers report that the stronger readers among lead smelter workers had brains that were better protected against the effects of lead exposure.

Brain scansWhile all the workers suffered damage due to occupational lead exposure, the stronger readers’ brains were better able to maintain function despite the damage – these workers’ brains had a higher ‘cognitive reserve’. Factors that contribute to high cognitive reserve include genetics, and education; and reading ability is a good indicator of an individual’s reserve.

However, while the stronger readers performed better than their colleagues in cognitive tests, other tests on motor speed showed all the workers were equally affected by the lead, suggesting that there is no cognitive reserve effect in the part of the brain controlling motor speed, the researchers say. 

There are several theories as to how cognitive reserve actually protects the brain, including being able to use alternative brain circuits more easily, or to process tasks more effectively through existing brain circuits. But whatever the latest theory, there’s no doubt you should keep reading Chemistry World.

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ICI owns the Dulux paint brandICI has rejected a second take-over offer from Akzo Nobel, but said today that talks between the two companies are still ongoing. Akzo offered £7.8 billion, or 650p per share – up from the 600p per share offer it made on 4 June. Following by the June takeover proposal, leading ICI shareholders said any offer for the company should be above 700p per share.

Dutch firm Akzo’s latest offer was made in conjunction with German consumer products group Henkel. If the deal eventually succeeds, Henkle would take on ICI’s adhesives and electronics materials business, while Akzo would receive ICI’s paints business, which includes the Dulux brand.

The ICI board unanimously rejected the revised offer as ‘it failed to recognise the full strategic value of ICI.’

The possible sale of ICI is covered in this month’s Chemistry World.

Update: Akzo Nobel have upped their offer to £8 billion, and ICI are looking interested …

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A great investigation about the use of animals in toxicology experiments appears in this month’s edition of Chemistry World

>>Tests on mice, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs to stop harmful chemicals reaching humans were once a necessary evil. But such checks now seem embarrassingly old-fashioned, according to a report on toxicity testing from the US National Research Council (NRC), released in June (see link below)

The report sets out a vision for 21st century toxicology using alternative tests that are not only more humane, but are also faster, cheaper and more accurate than their animal counterparts. Some of these tests are already here. Spurred on by the expense of implementing Reach, the new European chemicals legislation which came into force in June, scientists have unveiled a swathe of non-animal alternatives within the last few months.

While this paradigm shift marks a radical improvement for toxicology, it is also highlighting the enormous drawbacks of existing animal models, and how overdue their replacements are.

Read more here 

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What’s it like working in a science lab day in, day out? Do the excitements and breakthroughs make up for the boredom?Scientists working on a European nanoscience research project, nano2hybrids, have launched a series of video ‘diaries’ which will follow their progress week by week, over the next 3 years. Here’s their introduction:

Other recently launched web applications (the Journal of Visualized Experiments, JoVE, and SciVee), aim to use the web to help scientists find new ways of communicating their research to each other – live video ‘papers’, rather than stuffy journals, for example. Nano2hybrids is a bit different – it’s more of an exercise for the general public to find out what being a scientist is like. It might come as a shock to realise that science is accessible but also quite mundane a lot of the time!

Chris Ewels, one of the scientists involved, told me how hard it was to make a web diary: “We have to do the filming ourselves – I am tending to find that it means I record when nothing else is happening, which doesn’t make for exciting viewing! As soon as any discussion gets really animated or we start to really get somewhere, the last thing you feel like doing is stopping and picking up a camera.”

One major problem for the nano2hybrids guys is how to record a breakthrough without leaking details of intellectual property. Chris Ewels again: “It’s very frustrating! For anything that we suspect we might want to patent, we’re not allowed to say a word on the website or any patent application would be invalidated – some sections of video clips have been excised as a result, and once or twice I’ve wanted to record some ‘eureka!’ type moments but haven’t. We haven’t solved this one yet – one solution we’re thinking of trying is recording this stuff anyway when it happens, and then putting it up on the site once it’s been properly patented / published, so at least we’ve managed to catch the “moment” on film.”

I wonder if, any time in the future, scientists will start referencing youtube videos in their article reference lists … and maybe a web video could be an automatic proof that you got to a new method first? 

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Over a century since scientists first proposed the link between learning and the strengthening of the connections between neurons, a change in neuron junctions – or synapses – has been visualised for the first time. A research team led by Gary Lynch at the University of California, Irvine, in the US measured synapses in the brains of rats, before and after the animals were trained to negotiate a maze. They identified synapses that grew larger when the animal had learned its new task.
The growth of synapses as memories are formed is known as long term potentiation (LTP). As a task is repeated and learned, the same series of neurons fires and eventually, the junctions between these neurons are strengthened. Lynch showed this by tagging a protein in the synapse with a fluorescently labelled antibody. This protein, called cofilin, is phosphorylated in response to LTP, so the team used an antibody which recognises the phosphoylated form of cofilin, thereby labelling LTP.
Now for the coloured pictures: with a microscopic technique called restorative deconvolution microscopy, Lynch’s team was able to produce three dimensional images of these fluorescently tagged synapses, which are measurably bigger than other synapses that had not undergone LTP.
Lynch described to me his delight that he was able to produce such a clear biological picture of LTP and memory: ‘One common facet of neuroscience is that everything that should work rarely does, so it’s wonderful to see this result.’
Since the memory formation at specific synapses can now be given a label, the next step is to generate a map of exactly where memory is located in the brain. Lynch hopes to work with a number of other research groups to take each relevant brain area and generate the first biological map of the physical formation of new memories- exciting stuff.

Memory-making synapses, tagged in red, increase in size

You can see more images from Lynch’s study here.

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Nanoparticles may not be so toxic after all. According to a new study in Nano Letters, rats whose lungs were exposed to buckyballs (C60) and then monitored for three months suffered no adverse effects. But this research contradicts earlier work in which in vitro tests showing C60 was toxic to human cells (including cells from the lung).

The hypothesis that triggered the initial in vitro study was that unfunctionalised C60 would cause oxidative damage to cells because of its extensive π orbital structure. Disrupting this π structure, the theory went, by functionalising the surface with hydroxyl groups, would reduce the toxicity. And the initial in vitro study appeared to bear this out: C60 was three to four orders of magnitude more toxic than C60(OH)24.

However, in the rat studies, neither C60 or C60(OH)24 showed any toxic effects.

The difficulty of relating in vivo and in vitro studies, the limitations of using animal models to try to infer a compound’s toxicity in humans, and what the next generation of toxicity tests replacing animals might be, are discussed by Richard in an article in this month’s Chemistry World. In the mean time, the debate as to whether nanoparticles are harmful or harmless rumbles on.

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This weekend I have been avidly following the fortunes of a very famous chemist. A fictional character, admittedly, but one better known to most people on this Earth than, say, Linus Pauling. Yes, it’s Severus Tobias Snape, the complex, morally ambiguous Professor of Potions at Hogwarts School.

Snape is my second-favourite chemist in literature, behind the eponymous hero of William Cooper’s 1953 novel, The Struggles of Albert Woods (which Carl Djerassi has championed here – I recommend it highly!)

Woods is a likeable, idealistic, wide-eyed chemist. He yearns to make a break through with his studies of the ‘untypical Wurmer-Klaus reaction’, to discover things that will shock the chemistry world. And he’s often brought up short against the power of the stuffy FRS’s and the realities of chasing grant applications.

Snape is hardened, bitter, experienced – if he were a chemist in the real world, he’d have fought the struggle of drug discovery many times over, and would be well aware of the darker side to chemistry (the poisons, explosives). But, one can’t help feel, lurking inside there would still be a deep love of chemistry.

Cooper’s portrayal of Woods is frothy, light, comedic, with a few acidic bites at the chemistry world. Rowling’s picture of Snape is darker, but with a hint of the love within.

Those of you who read Chemistry World’s excellent opinion columnists, Dylan Stiles (Bench Monkey) and Derek Lowe (In the Pipeline), can draw your own parallels at this point. (Of their CW writing personas only, I should say!) I don’t have a fictional chemist’s analogy for Phil Ball (The Crucible) yet.

I’ve talked to many chemists about Snape over the 10 years or so that the Harry Potter phenomenon has been with us. My thoughts (and theirs) have generally been – Snape can’t be bad! One: the narrative arc of the 6 books so far demand this. Two: he’s a chemist! 

I now know the ultimate truth about Snape. Ooh, I feel powerful. No spoilers here though – wikipedia will spell it out for you if for some reason you don’t want to read the final book. Suffice it to say, that, like a good total synthesis, it all comes together in a powerful and deeply satisfying way.

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Cleaning may not sound like a thrilling topic for a scientific meeting of minds, but when the items to be cleaned range from radioactive hotel rooms to military tanks after a chemical attack, things get interesting and challenging. A meeting at the RSC in London today brought together scientists from the government, military, academia and industry to share their cleaning expertise. 

Attendees discovered how Unilever’s extensive research into bleaches could help in the clean-up of chemical spills and how the next generation of protective coatings for military vehicles will produce a fluorescent glow when they come into contact with contaminants. The generation after that might even self-decontaminate – but that was blue sky work in progress. 

An aside from Ian Thompson from Oxford University after his presentation concerned a more gentle method of clean-up. He suggested that buddleia trees (also referred to as the butterfly bush) might hold the key to the decontamination soil polluted by cyanide. Apparently these colourful, flowering trees self-seed and thrive adjacent to gas plants where cyanide leaches into soil. Grass grows around the bottom of the trees, suggesting it is decontaminated. 

 

The butterfly bush does its job for the environment

 

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An update on the h-index chemistry league table, which Chemistry World first published in April. Aside from some more chemists added to the list, the news is that George Whitesides has overtaken E J Corey at the top of the table. Thanks to all who’ve contacted Henry Schaefer and Amy Peterson at the University of Georgia, US, to suggest additions.

(To remind you, the h-index is a number invented by physicist Jorge Hirsch in 2005 in an attempt to fairly measure research impact. A scientist’s h-index is the highest number of papers they have published which have each amassed at least that number of citations from other authors: at number one on the list, Whitesides, with an h of 135, has published 135 papers which have each received at least 135 citations, for example.)

whitesides-175.jpg

whitesides-175.jpg

Harvard still has a 1-2-3 at the top (coming home with the bronze, Martin Karplus), but now Whitesides (left) is top dog. Well done him. Whitesides’ talk at the recent RSC MC8 conference – Advancing Materials by Chemical Design – summed up some of the work his group’s been doing this millennium on ionic electrets. An electret is anything with a permanent electrostatic field at its surface (which covers a lot – including a balloon that’s charged when you rub it against your hair, the clouds that build up before a lightning strike, the balls of a van de Graaf generator, in fact pretty much anything to do with static electricity buildup). By looking rather more closely at the physical mechanisms of transferring charge from one surface to another, Whitesides has developed ways to print nano-sized patterns of charge onto surfaces. He hopes to be able to get materials to self-assemble on the nano-scale, using a sophisticated understanding of the electrostatic forces between them. Which is not to say these ideas haven’t been studied before – just that electrostatics hasn’t been taken advantage of properly, Whitesides thinks.

Triboluminescence in candy

Triboluminescence in candy

Another area this might be useful for is minimising static electricity buildup. For a basic example, roll a plastic ball on a surface and it will slowly charge up with static electricity. Touch it and you might get a nasty shock. But, if you choose your plastic carefully to be half the sort that charges up positively, and half that charges up negatively, the buildup should cancel out.

It was pretty interesting stuff. The most memorable part came when Whitesides described how to create a nitrogen plasma in your mouth by the static electricity generated from chewing Wint-O-Green LifeSaver candy (picture, left; note to British audience: LifeSavers = unpleasant versions of polos). This is well-known stuff, apparently, but new to me at least. And as you can see from this recent New York Times article, it’s still generating interest amongst chemists.

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Chemistry World podcast

Chemistry World podcast

In case you hadn’t noticed, our July podcast is now live. We have interviews on chemical solutions to wrinkles and curing tobacco craving, plus esteemed editor Mark Peplow sends back more of his audio postcards from China – this month, an interview with one researcher who moved to Beijing from the west. You can also find out about self-healing polymers, mice on ice, nanobubbles, and orange juice mixed with toothpaste. Enjoy!

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