Guest post from Tom Branson

The taste of sweet success! But what is that flavour exactly, chewing gum or bon bons? The latest Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry (OBC) issue comes covered with sugary carbohydrate goodness and fullerene balls. Not at first obvious partners but throw in some lectins and you’ve got a hit.

On the cover a gumball machine has been set up in the lab with a few of the tasty C60 balls spilling out across the bench. The test tubes arranged at the back signify that the green, blue, red and yellow balls are obviously full of artificial colourings to make them tempting, but these are not for human consumption. In fact they are meant for bacterial consumption.

The bacteria in question produce fucose binding proteins, carbohydrate receptors that can be targeted for therapeutic reasons. On the cover, a schematic has been left out on the lab bench showing the fullerenes modified with linkers and terminating in fucose units, which then have a multivalent effect binding to one or more of the proteins.

The work focuses on the inhibition of two fucose binding proteins with very different binding site geometries. (more…)

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Guest post by JessTheChemist

’Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call “boys with toys.”’

This poorly conceived comment by Shrinivas Kulkarni, an astronomy and planetary science professor at the California Institute of Technology, was made on National Public Radio (NPR)  and within hours, Twitter was abuzz with activity. Using the hashtag #girlswithtoys, female scientists from all over the world began posting pictures of themselves with their ‘toys’ – from telescopes to distillation kits to robots – to show that girls are scientists with fun toys too! This flippant comment highlights the unconscious bias that is all too common in the science world as it perpetuates the notion that science is a man’s world. The list of Nobel prize in chemistry winners also reflects this attitude, with only four females having won the prize to date. Of course, there have been many highly influential and talented women who were worthy of prize.

Blue plaque on SW10, Drayton Gardens, Donovan Court
By Gareth E Kegg – CC-BY-SA

This month’s blog will concentrate on the unsung hero of the discovery of the structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin. Franklin’s x-ray diffraction images, which implied a helical structure for DNA, were key in determining the structure of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick used this information in their Nature publication in 1953, where they gave Franklin and Maurice Wilkins an acknowledgement for their contributions. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their work on the structure of DNA but Franklin was left empty handed. Franklin died in 1958 and only living people can win the Nobel prize, so sharing the 1962 Nobel prize was not possible. However, the Nobel archives show that no one ever nominated her for the prize in physiology or medicine, or even the chemistry prize, despite the fact that her findings were undoubtedly significant to the discovery. (more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

Working in the lab over time teaches you many new skills. These include the many specific techniques your research demands as well as the enhanced organisation and time management skills you need to keep things running smoothly. But lab work can also teach you to become fairly ambidextrous.

© Shutterstock

You often need enough strength and agility in your non-dominant hand to handle tricky objects while your dominant hand is busy, such as opening and holding a bottle while using a pipette to remove the amount of liquid you need.

Time and practice lets you build up a good level of dexterity in both hands, but there are still many things in the lab that can be difficult to use (or just annoying) if, like me, you are left handed. (more…)

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A guest post from Edward Hind (@edd_hind), an independent researcher specialising in marine sociology and a communications officer at the Society for Conservation Biology, UK

It’s no secret that research costs money – a lot of it. Funding is the fuel that that powers science, and without it we would have no equipment, no supplies and no way to pay our reserch teams.

It’s also no secret that science jobs are hard to come by. It’s a hyper-competitive world, and there’s immense pressure to do everything we can to get ahead in the pursuit of that dream job.

© Shutterstock

So what happens when the need to get ahead conflicts with the availability of funding? When the cupboard is bare and you still need to go to that big conference, do you break open the piggybank? When you need that fancy device to analyse your data, do you pile the purchase onto your student loans?

Our research project is starting to show that on many occasions scientists are using their personal income for these activities. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

The x-ray has always been a mysterious thing. An invisible beam of high energy electromagnetic radiation that passes through most kinds of matter, it is even named ‘x’ after the mathematical variable used to denote the unknown. And the x-ray itself isn’t the only unknown thing – so are its origins. Sources suggest it was an accidental discovery, but there aren’t as many sources as there should be, due to a very non-accidental fire.

Wilhelm Röntgen, German physicist and discoverer of x-rays, died on 10 February 1923, whereupon all his laboratory records were burnt on his request.

It was an extreme action, but not an unusual one.

While modern science is becoming more and more transparent, not very long ago secrecy was the tool of the inventor’s trade. Through secrecy, successful men were able to preserve their impression of genius, compete against their peers and prevent their ideas from being stolen. The most coveted prize was not scientific elucidation but personal recognition – impossible for those who were too open and lost their ideas to the less scrupulous. It wasn’t just seen amongst scientists; William Howson Taylor, founder of the admired Ruskin pottery, had all his notes burnt at his death in 1935. And so the method was lost with its maker.

We are left with a fuzzy picture, not much easier to illuminate than x-rays themselves, and can only imagine the scene in Röntgen’s laboratory in the winter of 1895… (more…)

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Guest post from Tom Branson

The famous Lego bricks have invaded almost all walks of life. Not content to remain as just a construction-themed toy, Lego has branched out into theme parks, video games, board games, clothing lines and even a movie. Until recently, however, chemistry remained a relatively unbuilt area. This changed last year with the production of an all female Lego academics lab, which was met by Lego and science fans alike screaming ‘just take my money!’ The set featured an archaeologist, an astronomer and a chemist and was not only super fun but helped to promote women in science. The plastic academic trio shot to stardom with their Twitter account showcasing some of the finer moments of life in the lab. Now, Lego has finally found a place at the pinnacle of scientific achievement on the front cover of the latest issue of Chemical Science.

A Lego chemist on the cover is dashing back into the lab carrying a flask ready for her next experiment. She is already wearing her white coat, blue gloves and glasses showing that even minifigures are safety conscious. Like many lab users she has made good use of the wall space by drawing out her chemical reactions. Although, the lab does seem rather open to the elements with the sun, clouds and rain threatening to ruin or in fact perhaps aid the artificial photosynthesis project taking place.

Lego is an awesome tool for building miniature skyscrapers and racing cars. So why not use it to build miniature or, more realistically, gigantic chemical structures? I think the authors could have used a little more creativity with the Lego for this cover – surely it’s not that difficult to build their cobalt complex out of the little bricks? Excuse me at this point whilst I run up to the attic, dive into my childhood supply and attempt to create a chemical masterpiece…

…actually it is quite difficult after all! Lego may seem like a nice alternative to the old ball and stick modelling kit, but it is not quite so specialised just yet.

The research performed by the group of Erwin Reisner, from the University of Cambridge, tells of their latest work on the development of a cobalt catalyst for H2 evolution. The metal complex they created shows good stability when anchored onto a metal oxide surface and also enhanced activity compared to previously reported cobalt catalysts. For a closer look into how the catalyst was built step by step (or perhaps brick by brick) head over to Chemical Science.

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

When starting a new experiment, it is great if there is a standard lab protocol (written by someone else in the lab) that you can use. These tried and tested methods usually increase the chance of your experiment working. On receiving the new protocol, the first thing you need to do is read the method carefully so you can plan accordingly; I’ve been caught out before – I found out part way through what I thought was a two hour incubation that it was really 12 hours, so I ended up having to finish off the experiment on Saturday!

Shelf of chemical bottles

© Shutterstock

(more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Nobody had thought to study the orange sludge that was scraped off the Union Carbide pipes after manufacturing cyclopentadiene, but perhaps they should have done. When chemists eventually set their gaze on this colourful by product, the ensuing discovery of ferrocene catalysed a branch of research.

Organometallics had proved themselves a hard puzzle to crack, with only a handful developed by the 1950s, including the infamous Grignard reagents. Iron organometallics remained elusive, which is why Thomas Kealy and Peter Pauson, working at Duquesne University in 1951, had no intention of synthesising any. In fact, they were trying to make a totally organic compound: pentafulvalene, a molecule built from two cyclopentadiene rings fused together by a double bond. Samuel Miller, John Tebboth and John Tremaine, chemists at the British Oxygen Company, demonstrated no more interest in organometallics: their aim was to develop a new method of preparing amides from nitrogen and hydrocarbons, including cyclopentadiene. Both threw in iron catalysts – after all, iron was not going to form stable organometallic compounds, was it? (more…)

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Guest post by JessTheChemist

’The field of scientific abstraction encompasses independent kingdoms of ideas and of experiments and within these, rulers whose fame outlasts the centuries. But they are not the only kings in science. He also is a king who guides the spirit of his contemporaries by knowledge and creative work, by teaching and research in the field of applied science, and who conquers for science provinces which have only been raided by craftsmen.’ – Fritz Haber

This month marks the one hundred year anniversary of the first use of chemical warfare as a strategic tool in battle. Fritz Haber was heavily involved in, and a proponent of, gassing with chlorine as a method of warfare. Whilst his work in this area may have resulted in huge loss of life, he also changed the world for the better through the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process.

The Haber-Bosch process, named after Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, was one of the first industrial chemical processes that I learned about at high school. At the time, I found it incredibly interesting that some pressure and some heat, with some iron thrown in for good measure, could turn nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas into malodourous ammonia. The reaction had been known before but the low yields and slow reaction times made it an unattractive prospect for an industrial process. Haber realised that the addition of high temperature and pressure with an iron catalyst could make this a highly efficient process. Haber won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1918 for his identification of the process, while Bosch won the prize in 1931 for his work in scaling up the process.

With cheap access to ammonia, fertilizers were became more readily available and, as such, millions of people around the world benefit from the availability of good quality crops. But the availability of ammonia also led to an proliferation in the use of nitrate-based explosives, as Wilhelm Ostwald discovered that ammonia could be converted relatively simply into nitric acid and nitrates using a platinum catalyst (the Ostwald Process).

Haber’s father owned a dye pigments and paints business, so it is not a surprise that he entered into the field of chemistry. After attending university, a brief period working for his father and various apprenticeships, he took up an academic position at the University of Karlsruhe.

As with the other laureates I’ve researched on this blog, Haber is connected to a number of highly influential scientists, including Walther Nernst, his closest academic relative,. Nernst helped to develop the modern field of physical chemistry, including electrochemistry and thermodynamics. All undergraduate chemists should recognise his name from learning all about the Nernst equation! He won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1920 for his work into thermochemistry. Through Nernst, Haber is also connected to Irving Langmuir who won the Nobel prize in 1932 for his research on surface chemistry.

Haber is related to Adolf von Baeyer, an organic chemist who is famous for the synthesis of indigo. In 1905 he was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for his research in the field of organic chemistry, particularly organic dyes and hydroaromatic compounds. There is also an academic connection between Haber and Bosch, although they worked independently from one another on the same chemical process. Once Haber had developed the Haber process, it was purchased by the German chemical company BASF, where Carl Bosch managed to scale up the reaction to the industrial level, resulting in the Haber-Bosch process.

Whether you believe Fritz Haber is a great man or not, it cannot be said that his (and Bosch’s) finding was not a great one.

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Guest post from Holly Salisbury

There’s just one week left to vote for your favourite Take 1… minute for chemistry in health video.

The shortlisted videos are online for one more week – this is your last chance to pick your favourite to win the £500 cash prize!

The chemical sciences play a fundamental role in improving healthcare. We invited undergraduates through to early career researchers to produce an original video that communicated how chemistry helps us address healthcare challenges in an imaginative way. The videos show the use of nanoparticles for drug delivery through to the development of antifreezes useful for long-term blood and organ storage. Others explain the chemistry of fat cells, illustrate the chemistry of toothpaste, and highlight the impact of chemistry in treating cancer and tackling antibiotic resistance.

Want to get involved? Watch our 6 shortlisted videos (below) and vote for your favourite before 11.59pm (GMT) 17 April 2015! (more…)

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