August 2007



Just when you thought they couldn’t get much easier, examiners have been advised to set easier questions for some GCSE science papers, The Times reported yesterday. The newspaper says the guidance was issued in a document from the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents the UK’s awarding bodies.

According to the article, ‘For a student sitting a GCSE science paper, the difference between an easier and a harder question might mean being asked the atomic structure of magnesium, instead of more complex elements such as chlorine or titanium.’

The document says that changes will take effect next June. Although they are not binding, they represent a “gentlemen’s agreement” among the awarding bodies, according to the JCQ. Individual awarding bodies may choose to ignore the guidelines

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That’s it, I’m off. There’s no-one here any more, just soft jazz piping down empty corridors and a few desolate souls muttering into their mobiles. Oh, and the ACS soft-focus video is still blasting out of the wall-mounted screens. Never a quiet corner here. The next meeting’s in New Orleans, 2008. Personally, I hope it has more sofas to sit on and more fruit to eat – but the same exciting profusion of chemists of course. Just got time to mention the guy who thinks tornadoes follow the locations of oil deposits. There’s a hot tip to help you up the rich list…

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This is great: doctors may one day diagnose viral diseases with mass spectrometers, according to Mark Bier, of Carnegie Mellon University, US, who at the ACS Boston Fall meeting presented a nifty MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer which can measure the mass spectrum of large intact viruses. Only last week, he said, he’d run a mass spectrum on the Hong Kong 97 virus. The secret is an ultra-sensitive cryodetector which works at 0.3 K, picking up those massive slow-moving biological particles which wouldn’t make an impact on normal detectors.

 

Other spectrometers have to break proteins into small bits to analyse their composition – but that analysis takes a long time. With Bier’s technique, it just takes a few minutes to get the intact virus, which is why it’s promising from the point of view of instant diagnosis. Ideally, in the future, a simple swab or breath analysis could give a doctor a mass spec readout of your virus’s fingerprint, in the clinic. Bier wouldn’t be drawn on how far away that would be, though! One of the problems is thinking how to shoot a laser at the swab to get virus ions, and then trap them to couple them to the sensitive detector.

 

He’s currently analysing the composition of human plasma von Willebrand factor, a glycoprotein which is required for blood clotting. In the disease of the same name, these proteins join up in too many, or two few, multimers, and your blood doesn’t clot. Bier’s hoping that mass spectrometry will perhaps find new multimeric combinations, aiding the diagnosis of the disease.

 

The equipment, which costs $10,000 a year to maintain, can also be used to look at nanoparticles (instead of the light-scattering techniques people usually use to check size). It would be cheaper if it worked at higher temperatures, of course, which Bier assures me is being worked on, but you can’t have everything.  

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Absolutely nothing. In humans, at least, so far. Back in 2002 it was identified as a suspected carcinogen in crisps, potato chips, coffee, biscuits and bread. But at the ACS meeting, Lorelei Mucci, of the Women’s Hospital and Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, reported the preliminary results of an enormous epidemiological study involving 100,000 US women, comparing the risk of breast cancer between those that took in the most acrylamide from food versus those that took in the least, over a 20 year period. The results? No significant difference in breast cancers. Add to that the previous huge studies Mucci reviewed on Swedish men and women’s colon, rectum, bladder, and renal cancer – again, no association with acrylamide intake.

The key is that we take in acrylamide at about 0.5 micrograms per kilogram body weight a day, and possibly detoxify it. But the rats in whom acrylamide was shown to cause cancer, were exposed to carcinogen levels up to 100,000 times higher than that. The lower dose might still cause longterm effects, but if they’re not showing up after 20 years I don’t know how worrying that is. There is still the need to check for Alzheimer’s and other diseases, of course. Emma Davies, Chemistry World’s features editor, currently on maternity leave, wrote a great feature for us explaining the latest research in this field, ‘Fries to go’ (restricted access).

Mucci was delivering her results to a roomful of people who’ve spent the last half-decade showing how acrylamide could cause cancer, what its significant sources were, and therefore how it could be lowered in food. I do get worried  by the huge differences between epidemiological studies in humans, toxicology studies at large doses in animals, and small-scale mechanistic studies in vitro. Contradictions such as the acrylamide story really set my confidence back in hopes that we’ll improve toxicology to be able to predict chemicals’ effects on human health at typical doses in cell-line tests, as the NRC hopes will happen this century.

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Arthur C Cope medallion

Arthur C Cope medallion

There’s nothing like a medallion to confirm you are the best, and the Arthur C Cope award winner Jean Fréchet (whose excellent talk Vikki described below) certainly deserved his. I got to hold it and took a hasty snapshot – as Kenneth Wolstenholme might have said, ‘It’s only three inches round, it’s solid gold, and it means that Fréchet is the ACS champion!’ (To US readers, apologies for the obscure allusion to the success of a little country in an irrelevant sport, over 40 years ago. But after the loss to Germany, I feel we need to remember the glory days). There was some debate how he would get it through customs back to France – I’m not sure how these things are usually worked out.

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Audiophiles take note: plastic stereos could sound a lot better in future thanks to the efforts of a team of European researchers. The EUREKA factory ecoplast project looked at ways of combining natural fibres like wood, flax and hemp with polymers to create new, cheaper plastics.

The team tested one composite, which contained wood, for its acoustic properties and found that speaker boxes made from it performed as well as those of leading brands. Purists may well still frown upon plastic speakers but the team says the potential for commercialising the new plastic (which is also recyclable) is ‘very high’.

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I liked this story a lot: Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have discovered a chemical compound in male blue crabs that is not present in females — the first time in any species that an entire enzyme system has been found to be activated in only one sex.

The metabolite in question is 2-aminoethyl phosphonate (AEP), which the scientists identified by phosphorus NMR. They found AEP in the gill tissue of male blue crabs, but not female. So how did they rule out whether it was a dietary difference? Robert Kleps, director of the UIC Research Resource Center NMR Lab and lead author of the study, takes up the story …
>>While writing the first draft of the paper, Kleps happened to read that a rare gynandromorphic blue crab — one half male, one half female — had been captured by Romuald Lipcius of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary.

>>The rare gynandromorph is divided down the middle, with a characteristic blue male claw and a female red claw. The underside of the crab is also visibly divided into male and female halves. After the crab died, Lipcius sent Kleps gill tissue from each side for analysis. The measured levels of AEP from the male and female gills provided additional evidence that AEP is a sex-specific compound.

“Since both sides of this strange crab have, of necessity, shared a diet and environment, we had completely independent confirmation of the sex-specific nature of this metabolite,” said Kleps.

“That blue crabs have this sex-specific compound may be a fluke, or it might represent a common but overlooked process in animal development,” he said.

Wow. I’m mainly blown away by the news that there’s a crab out there which is half-male, half-female …

Update: It appears that the crab’s name was Jerry … check out how the Newport Daily News covered the story

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Sir Fraser Stoddart’s big year continues. Having celebrated his 65th birthday, been knighted for services to chemistry and molecular nanotechnology, and won the King Faisal International Prize in Science for 2007, Stoddart is now moving – from UCLA to Northwestern.

Stoddart will become Board of Trustees Professor of Chemistry, and will direct the new Center for the Chemistry of Integrated Systems at Northwestern, a multidisciplinary facility focused on science and engineering of complex systems. Stoddart’s 25-strong research group will gradually make the move east between now and January 2008.

For the past 10 years, Stoddart has plied his pioneering trade in molecular devices and mechanical bonds at UCLA, after moving to the States from Birmingham University, UK, in 1997. In 2003, he became director of the California NanoSystems Institute.

With all this year’s goings on, maybe a dedicated ‘Stoddart’ blog category is in order…

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Using stories to make science accessible to all seems to be a theme at the sessions I have attended at the ACS meeting.

At this afternoon’s session of the ACS for the Arthur C Cope and Arthur C Cope Scholars Awards a (rather large) room full of delegates met to listen to outstanding scientists like David MacMillan who received an award for his work towards the synthesis of complex chiral molecules. MacMillan compared the efficiency of the techniques he uses and their potential to the legend of the grains of rice on a chess board.

Another young investigators such as Janis Louie gave a comprehensive and instructive talk on the uses of Nickel catalysts in cycloadditions.

The session was wrapped up by the colour-blind, award winner, Jean Fréchet, who talked on macromolecules at the interface between organic and materials chemistry. The talk was split in to two parts to showcase the work of his research group. The first part looked at using organic electronics to make monolayers that can self-assemble and act as electrical transistors.

The second part of the talk was based more on what I would consider to be ‘characteristically’ the work of Fréchet – developing dendritic macromolecules for use as cancer chemotherapeutics.

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It’s a shock to walk out of the piped-music carpeted convention centre and back into Boston’s real world. I took a taxi yesterday, and in the 15 minutes between the centre and my hotel, the driver (on learning I was a science reporter) informed me that he believed strongly in creationism, having thought carefully about the matter (he meant intelligent design, and actually had a hardback book by Michael Behe in the cab); this global warming thing was ridiculous and Al Gore was a schmuck who should use less air conditioning; and, as a parting shot, that the world was made up of protons, neutrons, electrons and morons.

That last one was worth a tip, anyway. It reminded me of the old classic about the new element administratium, with its assistant vice neutrons, held together by morons.

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