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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…)

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‘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…)

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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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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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This week, I’ve spotted another clever use for existing scientific technology…

A system for automatically detecting, locating and tracking forest fires makes use of spectrometry, seeking out the distinctive spectral signature of burning organic material.  Deployed in Portugal, the system helps to protect 700 km2 of national park.

Forest fires are a significant problem, responsible for a number of fatalities as well as severe economic impact from loss of property and livestock. In 2012, the US National Interagency Fire Centre recorded 67,744 wild fires, affecting over 9 million acres, and massive bushfires are a common occurrence in Australia. Early detection can dramatically reduce the damage done by a wildfire, and as such, fire detection has often adopted scientific developments.

In the early 20th Century, fires were spotted by human lookouts stationed on towers, who would report back by any means available; carrier pigeon, heliograph, telephones and radio communications all featured. As technology developed, instant aerial photographs and infrared scanning improved detection and satellite communications improved reporting of incidents.

Automated and integrated systems followed soon after, including wireless sensor networks and satellite surveys such as Envisat and the European Remote Sensing Satellite, both capable of identifying hotspots of infrared radiation.

Modern remote fire detectors should be fast, cheap, reliable and able to pinpoint the location of a newly started fire. To try to meet these aims, the Forest Fire Finder, developed by Portuguese company NGNS, incorporates detection, analysis and communication tools into one potentially solar-powered unit. (more…)

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The potential applications of scientific processes are not always obvious at the time of their development…

Microfluidics, the precise control of fluids used in lab-on-a-chip applications, could wick away sweat to help keep you fresh and dry, according to engineers at the University of California, Davis.

Lab-on-a-chip devices rely on being able to move, mix or separate extremely small volumes of fluid to perform combinations of laboratory tasks in a very compact space, often no larger than a few square centimetres. Developing new devices requires a good understanding of how fluids will move through defined channels, and how to manipulate this flow to maintain the required reactions.

Inspired by this, graduate students Siyuan Xing and Jia Jiang in the Micro-Nano Innovations lab (cleverly abbreviated to MiNI) developed a new textile that incorporates hydrophilic threads into a highly-water repelling fabric. The threads attract and channel water, or sweat, allowing it to be moved from its source (in this case, perhaps your armpits) to another location on the outside of the garment. From there, it can simply run off or evaporate, meaning the fabric can remain dry, comfortable and breathable.

(more…)

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Last week a new science festival came to town. For 3 days, 15 different pubs in London, Oxford and Cambridge invited local scientists to share their work with the punters for a Pint of Science. Each city hosted talks on the brain, the body and biotechnology and I attended two of the biotechnology evenings held in Cambridge.

pint of science

On Wednesday, Colin Davidson and Chris Lowe asked ‘Can you live without your mobile?

With the UN predicting that there will be more phones than people in the world by the end of 2014, and the majority of the growth in mobile phone use now in the developing world, both Colin and Chris are interested in exploiting the concept of mobile healthcare for the benefit of society.

Their talks reminded me of some of the research we’ve covered in Chemistry World, including this app for detecting food allergens.  Mobile phone based technologies are (obviously) more portable and often easier to use, so ideal for improving or monitoring health in traditionally poorly served hard-to-reach areas.

Apparently Android is ahead of Apple when it comes to the development of mobile technology for science – good to know; I’m in the market for a new smartphone…

The overriding conclusion of the evening was that the role smartphones play in helping to alleviate modern healthcare problems is only going to increase, so for mobile healthcare at least, the future really is bright.

(more…)

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Camouflage has been used by military forces since the ancient Roman Empire. It seems obvious that matching the colour of your vehicle to the environment will make you a far less visible target. But using modern scientific techniques, camouflage can be far more than simply painting a vehicle to blend into the background.

Foxhound light patrol vehicle in Army Brown. Courtesy of AkzoNobel.

Foxhound light patrol vehicle in Army Brown. Courtesy of AkzoNobel.

AkzoNobel, a paints and coatings company based in the Netherlands, has announced a new paint for British Army vehicles that not only works as camouflage, but can help to protect soldiers against chemical attacks.

British army vehicles have been painted with sand coloured camouflage since before the Second World War. Warfare has changed a lot since then, so it’s about time they were redecorated. To devise a new colour scheme, the Ministry of Defence collected samples of soil and rocks from Afghanistan, along with high resolution imagery. The new hue was given the, perhaps uninspiring, name of Army Brown.

Army Brown is similar to the tan colour used by the US and Australian militaries, and designed to work well both in arid environments and amongst vegetation.

Tasked with developing the paint, AkzoNobel decided to build in more functionality, and designed a water-based solution that would protect the vehicles from corrosion and is capable of absorbing chemical warfare agents. Thanks to the inclusion of a specific resin, the paint can also be peeled off and disposed of when contaminated or if a quick change of colour is required.

(more…)

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