July 2013



This evening, at the ISACS Challenges in Chemical Biology event in Boston, I was part of a conversation suggesting that the concept of chemical biology needed a rebrand. The kids aren’t into chemical biology any more, that scene’s old, man. Of course earlier in the day, I’d been discussing how ‘molecular biologists’ have become ‘chemical biologists’ as the understanding of chemical mechanisms in biology has improved.

The truth is that over the last 48 hours I’ve watched talk after talk illustrating how the mechanics of life are molecular. They are chemical. Bacteria talk to each other using small molecules and peptides that interact with specific residues in a protein, that induces a conformational change, which changes the protein’s available residues within the cell which… and then… and that activates the hydrogen of… etc. The chemical modification of histones by enzyme x alters the reaction landscape of genes by… and so on. (more…)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Guest post by Chemistry World intern Dan Johnson

Catching a clip of some ‘fashion week’ or other on the news, I’ve often wondered why those spindly catwalk models are wearing a tent for a skirt, a plant pot for a hat and all the while giving you that haughty to look as if to say ‘You still wear clothes?’ What these people are wearing seems to have nothing to do with mere normal people. Mention this out loud though, and you’ll be told: ‘they set the trends that change your boring clothes, you philistine’.

Non-scientists are often left similarly confused and befuddled by ‘blue-skies’ scientific research. The proposed benefits of such research can be so shrouded in mystery that it begs the question: ‘What’s this got to do with me? How will this affect my life?’

One man who believes passionately in the benefits of such research is Andre Geim – one of the discoverers of graphene, which won him the 2010 Nobel prize in physics. In a recent Perspective piece in Nature, he lays out the new direction for research in his own personal fiefdom: two-dimensional materials. (more…)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

‘Chemists are wimps.’ So said Paul Mulvaney of the University of Melbourne in his plenary session at the 11th international conference on materials chemistry (MC11), as he called chemists out for their lack of grand vision and willingness to openly ask the big questions. Referring to a special edition of Science magazine, Mulvaney pointed out that of the 125 ‘big questions’, vanishingly few were proposed by chemists. (Of course, this could say more about Science than about chemists…)

Neuroscientists have the basis of consciousness, medics seek a vaccine for HIV, geneticists still don’t know why humans have so few genes and cosmologists enquire after the very material of the universe, but examples that are purely chemical were conspicuous by their absence. Mulvaney mentioned just one chemical example – self-assembly – but even that, he felt, was poorly defined. His challenge was met by a murmur of agreement and inspired impassioned discussion over wine at the conference banquet. (more…)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Guest post from Chemistry World intern Daniel Johnson…

Our first family computer didn’t have much processing power. In fact it sometimes felt like the technological equivalent of a boxed monkey with an abacus. So when my brother installed SETI@home (it stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) – a program designed to harness home PCs to crunch through radio telescope data – the result was a device incapable of supporting anything but a game of Minesweeper.

An artist’s impression of a hot Jupiter (at bottom right), a giant planet that orbits extremely close in to its host star. Credit: Leiden Observatory

Judging by recent developments, however, it turns out my curious and philanthropic sibling needn’t have bothered. Astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have developed a new method which could allow us to analyse the make-up of exoplanets in greater detail than ever before. According to results presented at the Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting on the 5th July, the new technique will allow astronomers to ‘efficiently search for water on hundreds of worlds without the need for space-based telescopes’. The implications? Easier to look for planets that may harbour those green many-legged aliens, for a start. Furthermore, having improved the technique for water, the team, headed by Jayne Birkby of Leiden University, may now move on to other atmospheric molecules such as O2, CO2 and CH4. (more…)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m not a chemist. I always enjoyed chemistry at school – I’d even go as far as to say I was good at it – but in the end the lure of the living was just too strong and I opted to do a biology degree.

It turns out that not being a chemist is something I have in common with several of the Nobel Laureates here in Lindau. Some were awarded the Nobel prize in physiology and medicine, or in physics. Others’ pioneering chemistry work was an offshoot from a career in another scientific field. 2012 chemistry Nobel Brian Kobilka, who opened the first day of scientific lectures with a summary of his work on G-protein coupled receptors, explained he was a ‘new kid on the chemistry block’.

‘I’m a physicist, but hey no one’s perfect!’ quipped David Wineland at the beginning of his talk on quantum theory (to a murmur of agreement from the crowd). The next day Erwin Neher told us he ‘trained as a physicist, won a Nobel in physiology & medicine and I’m now speaking at a chemistry meeting.’

Three days in, I’ve heard from more than 20 Nobel laureates from across the whole spectrum of science, and there are many more still to come. (I won’t go into much detail here – keep an eye on the website for videos). I’m beginning to realise the extent to which the sciences are intermingled. As Jean-Marie Lehn neatly summed up in his talk: ‘Physics concerns the laws of the universe, and biology the rules of life. Chemistry builds a bridge between the two.’ (more…)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Picture hundreds of chemists taking over a tiny island. It may sound bizarre, but that’s pretty much what’s happening in Lindau, Germany right now.

I’m lucky enough to be at the 63rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual event that sees Nobel laureates summoned to the beautiful Bavarian island of Lindau, along with 600 of the world’s most promising and passionate young researchers, all hoping to meet their heroes. This year, it’s chemistry’s turn. Brian Kobilka, Harry Kroto, Akira Suzuki and Ada Yonath are just some of the 35 science legends who will be taking to the stage this week.

It’s a conference like no other, with one specific goal: To build bridges. Bridges across generations, across cultures and across disciplines. As all the speakers have achieved remarkable things in different areas, the talks and discussions will cover a mish-mash of topics, from drug discovery to quantum theory. Many will focus on grand challenges such as sustainability or energy production, and broader topics such as science communication are also on the agenda.

(more…)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)