Mark Peplow


It was Jean-Pierre Garnier’s last day at work yesterday. As chief exec of GSK he’s overseen growth in its pipeline – but he’s also been lambasted by shareholders who have seen a 30 per cent fall in the company’s share price during his 8-year tenure. When his successor, Andrew Witty, was appointed back in October 2007, we reported that the general feeling in the industry was that JP had had a very successful run as CEO. But with GSK blockbusters Seroxat and Avandia still under a major cloud, Witty will have his work cut out to pacify rebellious shareholders and capitalise on JP’s investment …

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RSC Publishing is in the middle of a hiring spree – there are jobs in journals editorial, informatics, ICT, sales, and marketing available. Chemistry World is also looking for a Business Editor – and applications for our annual summer internship are still welcome. Better dust off those CVs …

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I love poster sessions – it’s like speed-dating for geeks. Stroll along row after row of posters, checking out the merchandise, until you see something that takes your fancy. Then tarry for as long as you like, before moving on to flirt with the next chemical idea that catches your eye. Here are a couple of this evening’s encounters …

(more…)

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glassblowing-21.jpgThere was a great demonstration today in the exhibition hall by Andrew Pollack, a local artist who does incredible things with glass. Experimental chemists use beautiful glassware every day, but in the age of Quickfit it’s now pretty rare to actually see glassblowing in action. Pollack twists, rolls and blows the glass like a pro – he’s been doing this for ten years – and by the end of the demonstration there’s a crowd of about forty people gathered around his workbench.

Did you always want to be a glass artist, I asked him afterwards. ‘My mom’s an artist, and I’ve always liked fire, so it seemed like a natural choice,’ he answered with a smile. The perfect career for any budding pyromaniacs out there …

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Yesterday evening saw a ‘town meeting’ with the director of chemistry at the US National Science Foundation, Luis Echegoyen. This is standard fare in American science conferences – a bigwig outlines what the future holds, and then braces themselves for a queue of irate scientists taking turns to gripe about budgets.

At least, that’s what I expected. The last physics conference I went to, a couple of years ago, there was shouting and arm waving from disgruntled scientists. And at an astronomy conference I saw open jeering during the presentation, and impassioned invective from the mob about administrators crucifying their science. 

Chemists, it seems, are either much happier with their lot, or much more passive. Echegoyen outlined recent budget ups and downs, and the modest increases hoped for in the coming FY09 budget. He has the warm, easy charm of your favourite uncle giving a speech at your wedding, and even manages to raise a few chuckles from the audience as he wades through spreadsheets and graphs.

He talks about the change in emphasis towards funding more ‘transformative research’, and the increased resources for international collaborations; so maybe the outlook is pretty sunny – after all, there’s not a single question at the end of his talk.    

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I saw an excellent lecture by George Whitesides of Harvard yesterday. His official status as god-of-chemistry – and the fact that his talk was tantalisingly entitled ‘Questions about questions about the origins of life’ – meant that the small hall was packed to overflowing.

Whitesides put a health warning on the talk – there were very few facts, a lot of speculation, and no answers. Nevertheless, in forty minutes he set out a research agenda that could allow chemistry to answer one of the most fundamental questions – how life began. 

Unlike the ‘puzzles’ that trouble most chemists (projects such as total synthesis of a natural product, where much of the intellectual satisfaction is in the journey, rather than the destination; where its possible to frame the question absolutely; and where its clear that there is an answer to be found), this is a true ‘problem’, he argues – it’s really not clear what questions need to be answered, or if there is even an end-point to be reached.

There has been fifty years of research into how simple biological molecules could have formed from the prebiotic components available on Earth some 3.8 billion years ago. Likewise, progress towards defining the ‘RNA world’, where that molecule acted as both information carrier and catalyst before DNA arrived on the scene, is pretty good. 

But there is a hug gap to bridge between the two, says Whitesides, and chemists are best place to build it. So if you want to get started on a problem which he predicts will take generations to crack, here are a few of his suggestions:

- Work out the organic chemistry of black smokers, the underground geothermal chimneys that spew out a hot, fertile mixture of organics and inorganics

- Figure out what kind of chemistry is possible in deep space

- Work out how ‘primitive co-factors’ – enzymes that contain clunky inorganic bits, such as the nickel-dependant urease – which are common to most forms of life could form.

- Discover how ion gradients (potassium inside the cell, sodium outside the cell) can form from natural processes. ‘People ask me where life comes from,’ says Whitesides, only half-joking, ‘and I say Alberta’. He’s specifically referring to an evaporated salt sea that would have concentrated these ions in its shrinking pools.

- Likewise, how did the triphosphate energy-carrying group arise?

Interestingly, he thinks that the search for the origins of chirality doesn’t fall into this catalogue of life’s fundamental aspects. Organic chemists love chirality, which is why so much effort is expended on figuring out life’s preference for left-handed amino acids, he says – but ultimately it’s a distraction. ‘It’s a real Rorschach test for people,’ he told me. ‘Either you think it’s really important, or not important at all’. Hmmm – Ron Breslow is clearly in the former category, and indeed so am I. On the other hand, it’s a brave man that bets against Whitesides. 

He argues that it’ll take new ways of thinking about chemistry to tackle the origin of life problem – and trying to reconstruct these complex networks will take a lot of hard maths (so the biologists are no use, he adds). So – anyone up for the challenge?

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Are socks an environmental disaster waiting to happen? I know mine are – but the problem could be much, much bigger, according to Troy Benn of Arizona State University. Several varieties of sock (and other items of clothing, surgical wound dressings, and lots more) now come with nanoparticles of silver embedded into the fabric, to kill off the bacteria that make your feet smell funny. Benn and his colleagues wondered what happened to the silver when they washed the socks, and found that in some cases all of the silver leached out within a few washes – that’s about a milligram of metal per sock going down the drain.

Some of the silver is dissolved as silver ions, which is ‘detrimental to all aquatic biota,’ says Benn. ‘Once the silver ions get into the gills of fish, it’s a pretty efficient killer.’ The rest of it remains in nanoparticle form, so it could be doing anything – there’s virtually no research on the environmental fate of silver nanoparticles.

Current regulations do not really cover the nano aspects of toxic socks, or indeed washing machines. Benn thinks that manufacturers could do a better job of labelling their nanosilver-impregnated products, so that consumers can at least make an informed choice.

So should we be worried by the toxic socks? Benn says that silver levels in waste water need to reach about 180 parts per billion before the US Environmental Protection Agency steps in to tackle the situation. I asked him how many socks you’d need to wash at the same time to reach that concentration in waste water, but sadly he hasn’t done the calculation.

However, I just have. A concentration of 180 ppb in water is about 1 gram of the metal in every 1000 litres of water. Given that each sock can release about 1 mg of silver, and a load of washing can use 100 litres of water, that means you’d have to stuff about 100 socks in your Zanussi to raise the waste water to EPA-worrying levels.

Of course, silver build-up in the sludge of a wastewater treatment facility could accumulate the metal to much higher levels – although that sludge is covered by current regulations. So, for now, I’m not too concerned about the sock threat. However, it does nicely highlight the fact that nanoparticles are increasingly finding their way into everyday life without us really having a clear idea of where they go.

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Any conference worth its salt has its own daily newspaper these days. They’re largely made up of ads and advertorial for exhibitors, but they often contain useful nuggets of info. Today, the ACS Show Daily carried a piece by Madeleine Jacobs, ACS executive director and CEO, inviting members to sign up for the society’s new Member Network, a social networking site in the style of LinkedIn. In case you don’t know, LinkedIn is like Facebook but without people throwing sheep at each other or turning into zombies (but now with added Barack Obama, so it must be alright).

The ACS Member Network allows people to make and share contacts, information, career profiles, publication lists and so on. It goes live on 1 August 2008, but you can sign up (if you’re a member) now and win an iPod. It’ll be interesting to see how much use it gets – I do wonder if people interested in using tools like these would be on LinkedIn already.

If that wasn’t enough, the ACS launched another networking effort last week – their very own island in Second Life, the online virtual world where your computerised avatar can make friends, chat, and generally swan around feeling smug about just how 21st century they are. There’s a short video of the grand opening – believe me, this is about as far from the real-world ACS meeting as you can get. Big bass drum indeed.

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The American crime drama series CSI must be largely responsible for the recent boom in forensic science courses at universities. I’m not sure how many of the undergrads on these courses will actually end up trading impressive-sounding jargon with their colleagues while solving crimes in the space of a thirty-second montage – but I’ve just met someone who seems to have a better chance than most.

Garrett Lee Burleson is a masters student at Sam Houston State University in Texas who, with his boss Jorn Yu, has developed a new way to analyse gun powder particles – the sort of residues that cover clothes, hands, and the surroundings after a gun has been fired. Standard tests tend to look for tell-tale signs of lead or nitrites in crime-scene samples, but these are prone to false positive or negative results. And with the arrival of environmentally-friendly lead-free ammo, the old tests just aren’t reliable enough, says Burleson.

His method looks for the distinctive combinations of chemicals such as diphenylamine and nitrophenylamine that are added to explosives as stabilisers. GC-MS can pick these out of crime scene samples so precisely that Burleson can even identify different brands of ammunition from a single residue particle some twenty times smaller than a full stop.

The next stage is to persuade other labs to verify the method; collate the evidence; and submit the technique to ASCLAD, the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, for their seal of approval. Burleson himself hopes to help develop the method further, although he’s got a job interview in a couple of weeks – with any luck, he’ll shortly be a firearms examination officer for the Harris County Sherriff’s Office. Surely TV stardom beckons?

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I’m in New Orleans for the American Chemical Society’s spring meeting, where roughly 12,000 chemists have taken over the downtown area. Over the next four days I’ll be reporting back on some of the highlights from this enormous meeting, which promises more than 9,000 talks and posters.

I’ve seen very little of the city so far (thanks to British Airways’ inability to handle baggage, I missed a connecting flight and spent yesterday evening in Chicago). But the dilapidated elegance of the area is hard to miss. Boarded up shops sit next to bustling bars, while paint peels from clapboard sidings, forming thin drifts of flakes over the cracked pavement. I’m over-romanticising, of course, but the amazing range of architectural styles behind the tatty exteriors makes for a fascinating stroll back from the hideous concrete convention centre to my bed-and-breakfast.

I’m staying in a classic antebellum mansion that’s straight out of Interview with the Vampire – in fact its architect, James H. Calrow, also designed the nearby house once occupied by Anne Rice. Decorated to the hilt in gilt, I’m in the ‘southern comfort’ suite, a vision in pink with a pair of kissing swans painted on the wall. Beats a Marriott any day (almost half the price, too) …

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