September 2013



Experienced trackers know exactly which species of animals are around from looking at their poo. But to do that, they need to get their hands on a good quality stool. Conditions aren’t always favourable for faecal preservation – rain, insect or other animal activity, health and diet of the animal can all conspire to make traditional identification tricky if not impossible.

The face of a mountain lion. Released by Digital Art here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitalart/ under CC-BY licence

The face of a mountain lion. Released by Digital Art here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitalart/ under CC-BY licence

This can be a real problem when tracking rare, elusive or endangered species, such as mountain lions. To understand population dynamics and evaluate conservation projects, we need to know how many animals are in which locations. Where the animals are too few and far between to use mark-release-recapture techniques, ecologists are increasingly turning to chemistry for new identification tools.

Genetic analysis seems like the obvious way to go. By analysing DNA found in dung, one can identify not just the species, but the individual animal. This sort of analysis has been demonstrated in a number of species and is now involved several conservation projects. For just £50 +P&P, you can send a sample off to a company in Warwickshire, who can identify most British mammalian species – very useful for determining what species of bat is nesting in your loft, or if you’re not sure whether a fox or a pine marten has been using your privet as a privy. (more…)

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There’s no doubt that the evolution of drug-resistant antibacterial is a worrying trend. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) may have taken most of the headlines, but while we’ve been discussing how best to wash our hands in hospital wards, other, more insidious resistant bacteria have come to the fore.

Medical illustration of extended-spectrum β-lactamase – Image courtesy of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

In March, Sally Davies, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer described antimicrobial resistance as posing a ‘catastrophic threat’. And recently, Tom Frieden, Director of the US Centres of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warned ‘If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era … and for some patients and for some microbes, we are already there.’

This month saw the publication of a two key reports: the UK five year antimicrobial resistance strategy 2013 to 2018  published by the Department of Health and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and the CDC tome Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013. In a little over 140 pages between them they scan the landscape, identifying and, for the first time, classifying the threats posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria. (more…)

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Sometimes people like to moan that chemistry doesn’t get enough media attention, but we have news to counter this claim. Our colleagues have let us know that this weekend the BBC World Service will be broadcasting an episode of The Forum, which was recorded last week at the RSC’s ISACS12 conference, Challenges in Chemical Renewable Energy.

Quentin Cooper hosts the programme with Daniel Nocera of Harvard University, Clare Grey of the University of Cambridge, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz of the State University of Campinas and Jim Watson of the UK Energy Research Council. The panel will discuss the work in their areas of expertise and future challenges for renewable energy as a whole. If you want to listen in, the programme will be broadcast at 23.06 GMT on Saturday 14September, 10.06 GMT on Sunday 15 September and 2.06 GMT on Monday 16 September and you can find out when this is in your local time at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmeguide/.

It will also be available to listen on the iPlayer shortly after the broadcasts have finished at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01g94yj. Make sure to let us know what you think.

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Today, (8th September 2013) was the first day of formal science events at ACS Fall, the American Chemical Society’s annual autumnal conference. This year the host city is Indianapolis, and Emma Stoye and I have come along to cover the action. From now until the 12th, I should expect to see more chemistry in the news than is normal, as the press team here are working hard to get stories from the conference into the headlines.

So it may sound a little odd that I decided to board a shuttle bus away from the conference centre, away from the press room with its free coffee and bagels, and away from room after room of scientific discussions where researchers share ideas and chew over the new results that will go on to generate headlines that we’ll publish in Chemistry World. It may almost sound like dereliction of duty when I tell you that the bus was headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500. But while the conference centre and nearby downtown hotels were hosting the scientific programme, the speedway was taken over by Celebrate Science Indiana, an annual event that ‘demonstrates the importance of studying science and the joy of discovery, the economic value of science, and its significance to society’. (more…)

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Guest post by Rhod Jenkins

What is the holy grail of renewable energy production? I work with a lot of chemists and engineers who research the area of chemical renewable energy, and this is one debate we tend to have more than any other. After a lot of raised voices, wagged fingers and offences taken, we tend to conclude that there is no one solution to the problem, but rather it’ll be a mixture of all of them. This is partially due to the massive scale of the energy problem, but it also comes down to the applicability of the technology. What might work for one application may be completely inappropriate for another.

2013 Nissan Leaf electric car at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show

2013 Nissan Leaf electric car at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show – Photo By Steve Lyon

Take transport, for instance. We all rely heavily on powered transport, and in the UK it accounts for over a third of our energy consumption. For this specific application the energy source needs to be carried on-vehicle (except in very rare electric trams), and at the moment this comes in the handy form of liquid fossil fuel. But what are our other options? Actually, there’s quite a few and they come generally under two categories. We can either replace the fuel itself, keeping the current engine technology and infrastructure, or we can develop new transport technology which would require new infrastructure. (more…)

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cannabiYesterday evening, over dinner, my friend and I couldn’t help but overhear a man on another table espousing the benefits of cannabis. Over a tiramisu, he stressed how cannabis can cure all ills including cancer and Alzheimer’s (There is some pre-clinical evidence, for these claims, but not all of the literature agrees). What our pro-cannabis lobbyist failed to mention, however, is that the modern cannabis is increasingly ditching the health giving cannabinoids in favour of more and more of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). (more…)

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It takes a certain type of person to take an idea and turn it into a successful company, and this is as true in the chemical sciences as in any other endeavour. In fact, a successful chemistry spin-out may be even more special – most inventions and new technologies don’t face the ‘valley of death’ that often separates the university lab bench from the commercial marketplace. The dragons of the den may understand the appeal of a well-branded and marketed jerk chicken sauce, but far fewer people have the insight to see the potential in chromatin modifying enzymes, haemolysin nanopores or spherical nucleic acids.

To celebrate those people who do see this potential (and whose vision so contagious they can get the support they need), we have the Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

The award recognises an individual’s contribution to the commercialisation of research, and so is open to anyone who has started or contributed to the growth of a start-up company. We’re looking for someone who has built a collection of intellectual property for the company and has developed new products that have reached the market recently or will do in the near future. The prize includes £4000, a trophy and a feature in Chemistry World. (more…)

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