June 2013



I like cabbage. It’s not a glamorous vegetable, but it’s tasty and versatile – even if it is easy to overcook and get the dreadful school canteen cabbage water smell. It’s also good for you, containing a range of medically relevant chemicals, including the potentially antibacterial and anticancer 4-methylsulfinylbutyl glucosinolate (4MSO).

The fruits and vegetables we buy in the grocery store are actually still alive, and it matters to them what time of day it is. The discovery, reported on June 20 in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, suggests that the way we store our produce could have real consequences for its nutritional value and for our health.
Credit: Goodspeed et al.

But how can you get the best from your cabbage? According to new research published in Current Biology, it may be as easy as eating it at the right time of day.

A team of US scientists, led by Danielle Goodspeed at Rice University in Houston, has demonstrated that shop-bought cabbages, even days after harvest, responded to a day–night cycle that regulated concentrations of defensive chemicals such as glucosinolates and the hormone jasmonate. When growing in the wild, this strategy offers an advantage, serving to increase protective chemicals in anticipation of daily attack from insect herbivores. However, it hasn’t been clear if this process would continue after harvest, on supermarket shelves or even in your fridge.

To find out, Goodspeed took samples of shop-bought cabbage and exposed it to a regulated cycle of 12 hours of light followed by 12 hours of darkness. After several cycles, the team looked at the variable chemical profile as well as the plant’s vulnerability to being nibbled by cabbage looper moth caterpillars. (more…)

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On my first day at Chemistry World, I was surprised to see a box of toys sitting on the editor’s desk. Gifts for children? Executive stress relief? Maybe I’ve joined one of those funky dotcom-style offices where people just play with toys for ‘inspiration’?

Protein Building Set

Protein Building Set

The truth, I soon discovered, is a bit of all three – the main toy in the box was the Proteins Building Set, which describes itself as ‘the most accurate protein building set’ with which you can ‘build and learn about proteins’. It was designed and developed by Marcel Jaspars of the University of Aberdeen, working with Richard Zawitz of Californian toy maker, Tangle.

Jaspars had suggested Chemistry World might like to have a sample set, so I decided to follow his advice – build a protein and see what I learn. (more…)

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At the weekend I was off on a country jaunt to visit family. We went out to a delightful little pile in Wiltshire called Bowood House. However, despite all the science documentaries I’ve watched over the years that covered, among other things, the history of the elements I was taken by complete surprise when I walked into one of the rooms in the house: this was where oxygen was discovered.
Bowood House, Wiltshire

Bowood House, as it turned out, was where Joseph Priestley spent some of the most productive years of his scientific life in a tiny room-cum-lab only a little larger than a child’s bedroom. While working there in 1774, Priestley used a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays on mercury(II) oxide and liberated oxygen from it, naming the gas ‘dephlogisticated air’. This was because the prevailing theory of the time – phlogiston theory – held that substances that could be burned contained the mysterious substance phlogiston, while those that had been burned were dephlogisticated. Priestley was a life-long advocate for phlogiston theory and continued to defend it long after other scientists had concluded it was a dead end. Perhaps giving oxygen a name linking it with phlogiston meant that the theory still held some romantic associations for him. (more…)

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I’ve been performing some internet searches that could cause red flags in the office, but on the other hand it’s a story of citizen science and lab safety. There is a growing trend for people to perform solvent extractions at home, but what they’re extracting is tetrahydocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, and they’re using highly flammable butane or isopropyl alcohol for the extraction.

Illustration of cannabis plants. Hermann Adolf Köhler (1834 – 1879)

Now there’s a bit of me that’s quite admiring of these home grown chemists, methodologies are available online and improvements are shared. However, in my experience, the venn diagram of people who are strongly pro-pot and people who are anti ‘scary chemicals’ has a pretty large central cross over. That leads to a lot of discussion about how smoking ‘hash oil’, the resinous product of these home extractions, is ‘more pure’. I’m not sure I agree, it’s still a mixture of compounds rather than pure THC, and despite claims of the oil being 90% THC by these home extractors, my survey of the literature suggests something topping out at 65%. And what about the additives in the solvent itself? But I’m not here to niggle over how good these extractions are, rather to make a point about how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

(more…)

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Archaeologists and chemists have combined their skills to determine that wine production in France may have started as early as 425 BC, inspired by wine imported from Italy.

Ancient pressing platform from Lattara, seen from above. Note the spout for drawing off a liquid. Image courtesy of Michel Py, © l'Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes.

Ancient pressing platform from Lattara, seen from above. Note the spout for drawing off a liquid. Image courtesy of Michel Py, © l’Unité de Fouilles et de Recherches Archéologiques de Lattes.

When most people think of France, they think of good cheese and fine wine (and sometimes a terrible smell), but little is known about when and how winemaking arrived in France.  Now, using a range of chemical analysis techniques as well as traditional archaeological methods, Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, and colleagues have found evidence of wine manufacture in the coastal town of Lattara dating from around 400 BC.

Several clues pointed to this date. Archaeological evidence shows wine being imported in Etruscan amphora, a special type of container, since the 7th century BC, but there seems to be a dramatic decline in imports after around 500 BC – was home production killing the wine import market? (more…)

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