The query was prompted by the news that Brazilian football legend Pelé had announced a range of diamonds, each made from a strand of his hair, to commemorate each of the 1283 goals he scored in his professional football career.
It seemed a fairly straightforward request – there’s plenty of carbon in hair and it’s certainly possible to make diamond industrially from a carbon source – so I volunteered to take the call. You can listen to the interview here:
I read around first, to find some extra facts and figures about diamonds. Most of these come from ‘the internet’, as I didn’t have much time before broadcast, so please forgive any inaccuracies.
My search took an immediate, albeit interesting, diversion when I discovered that Pele’s hair is already a known geological phenomenon. Rather than gemstones derived from a footballer’s foliage, Pele’s hair is an extraordinary type of volcanic glass, formed when molten rock is thrown into the air and extruded by the wind into hair-like golden fibres. These fibres travel downwind of the volcano, cool and solidify where they land. These unusual glass structures are named after the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes rather than the Brazilian godfather of football.
After this brief foray into volcanology, a reworded search confirmed that Pelé really is turning his hair into diamonds, using one of the established techniques for manufacturing synthetic diamond – the high temperature, high pressure, or HTHP method. This is the method that most closely mimics a diamond‘s natural geological formation. As its name suggests, pressures in the vicinity of 7GPa at more than 1700°C are used to grow fairly large stones using a diamond grit seed and carbon dissolved in a molten metal solvent. The exact conditions do vary – one company that makes diamonds from cremains (‘dead dog diamonds’, according to Simon Mayo) uses 5-6GPa at 1600-2000°C. The size of the resulting diamond depends on a number of factors, not least the time for which the conditions are maintained: De Beers once made a 25 carat (5g) stone by holding these conditions for six weeks.
Just in case Simon asked me live on air, I thought I should figure out how big a diamond made from a strand of hair could be, which means estimating how much carbon a single strand of the ex-Santos striker’s hair might contain. Hair is made of a number of different proteins, predominantly keratin, but also contains oils, water and a wide variety of other compounds (hair is routinely used for toxicological or narcotic testing, due to its tendency to accumulate drug metabolites, heavy metals and other toxins). We don’t know what Pelé has been exposed to (if he’s a fan of seafood there may be above average mercury concentration, for example) so I took average values for everything.
An average 12cm human hair (at least in one study) weighs 0.62mg. Making the sweeping assumption that hair contains a nice round 50% carbon by weight, that gives us 0.31mg of carbon from a single strand. If we make another assumption and convert all of that into diamond, we get an unimpressive 0.00155 carat gem. Apparently, each of the Pelé hair diamonds on sale (yours for just £4500) weighs 1 carat. If these gems are pure footballer fuzz, and don’t contain any generic carbon, they would need to be made from around 650 12cm hairs. There are around 100,000 hairs on an average human scalp, so to make the full run of 1283 diamonds, Pelé would need to shave his head completely 8.3 times.
If you’re a committed football fan, these diamonds could be a good investment, and at £4500 are a snip compared to one made from a clip of Beethoven’s barnet, which sold on ebay in 2007 for £121,000.
The 13th conference in the highly successful International Symposia on Advancing the Chemical Sciences (ISACS) series is taking place in Dublin, Ireland, this July and there’s still time to submit a poster abstract. Extensive poster sessions will form a key part of the symposium and Chemistry World is delighted to be sponsoring a prize for the best poster at the event. The winner will receive £250.
Challenges in Inorganic and Materials Chemistry (ISACS13) will bring together leading experts from several disciplines and encourage the cross fertilisation of ideas. Keynote speakers include David Parker from Durham University and Matt Rosseinsky from the University of Liverpool.
To take advantage of this excellent opportunity to showcase your latest research alongside leading scientists from across the globe submit your poster abstract before 21 April.
What makes a news story ‘news’? How do journalists construct an article? What sort of cake do they have in the Royal Society of Chemistry restaurant? If any of these questions have occurred to you, then you might be the person we’re looking for.
Chemistry World has a paid internship available for eight weeks in the summer of 2014. In those two months, you’ll pitch and write news stories, interview scientists and public figures, edit and lay out our magazine and get involved with our podcasts. It’s ideal for someone with an enthusiasm for science writing and a background in the chemical sciences.
To make the most of your time with us, we’ll also pay for membership of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), and take you to the UK conference of science journalists at the Royal Society.
It’s a great opportunity, but don’t just take my word for it. I asked a couple of our previous interns about their experiences:
Akshat Rathi: ‘My time with Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry was a lot of fun and learning. The staff is kind, friendly and helpful. The experience convinced me that science writing is something I enjoyed very much and I could perhaps pursue it as a career. Jumping from grad school to a career outside research can be tough, and this internship really helped me with that.
Since I finished this internship at the end of the 2nd year of my PhD, I have completed another internship at The Economist, worked with the Royal Society of Chemistry’s communications team on RSC News and currently I work as science editor at The Conversation, a new publication that launched in 2013.’
Josh Howgego followed his Chemistry World internship with work experience at Times Higher Education before being awarded a scholarship to study science communication, enjoying a placement at Nature and ultimately landing his current job at SciDev.net. He fondly recalls the extra-curricular benefits to joining the team:
‘Looking back on it now, one of the best moments of my internship with Chemistry World was the cheese scone incident. Allow me to explain. Early each day the magazine’s editorial team would have a news meeting to pore over papers and ideas and decide which of them to commission stories on. My only experience of science writing up to that point had been writing a small-time blog, so this quickly became one of my favourite times: it taught me a lot about what makes something “news” and hanging out with people who did the job I wanted to do one day was an opportunity to learn by diffusion. But added to that, these meetings took place in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s canteen and there was always coffee and the option of breakfast. You can imagine how my enjoyment turned to pure joy when one day, about three weeks into my placement, there were cheese scones on offer.
Perhaps it’s worth highlighting two other things I gained from my time at the RSC. The first was practice at professional writing. On the one had I saw how to structure a news story, and how that differs from an informal blog or feature, say. On the other, I learned the difference between a hyphen and an em-dash, and how helpful the correct use of grammar can be so helpful to clear communication. But perhaps the most important gift I received from Chemistry World was a bit more journalistic confidence. I was given responsibility for calling scientists and MPs and had to quiz them directly about their views and ideas. Looking back, I can see that this dramatically helped me understand how journalists put together a news story. It was probably this new grasp of what reporting really is that convinced me I wanted to be a science journalist — and I’m very grateful to all at Chemistry World for instilling me with it.’
The closing date is 18th May, so if you’re interested in joining us, please visit http://jobs.rsc.org/job/6256/science-writer-internship/ to apply.
Looking forward to seeing you in the summer!
This month we take a look at all things physics. We join the latest winner of the Michael Faraday Prize to talk about our asymmetric universe, discuss the future of the Higgs boson with some global leaders in particle physics and discover some surprising applications of Magnetic Resonance Imaging techniques.
0:58 Dr Fabiola Gianotti discusses the impact of the discovery of the Higgs boson and what we are doing moving forward
3.22 Professor Tejinder Virdee FRS talks about the incredible efforts and achievements behind the experiment at the Large Hadron Collider
8.09 Professor Frank Close OBE, winner of the 2013 Michael Faraday Prize, tells us about our asymmetric universe and why science communication is so important
15.16 Professor Lynn Gladden CBE FREng FRS reveals the novel potential of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, and how it can be applied in the fields of physical sciences and engineering
19.58 Professor Frank Close OBE tells us, why science?
If you follow us on Twitter you’ll know that I spent 16-20 March in Dallas, Texas for the ACS spring conference, hearing about peptides that attack TB, dissolvable electronics and new drug testing methods.
— Chocolate absorbing volatiles from wine
I was also happy to find that – perhaps fitting for a state known for generous helpings – there was plenty of food and booze research on the scientific agenda.
First up, chocolate. We all love it, and apparently so do the bacteria that live in our guts. Dark chocolate has been linked to various heart and metabolic heath benefits in past studies. Now, a group led by John Finley at Louisiana State University, US, may have come closer to figuring out the reasons behind some these effects. Dark chocolate with a high cocoa content contains polyphenol antioxidants (such as catechins which are also found in tea), but these are poorly digested and absorbed in the gut, so this is unlikely to be the full story. Instead, say the researchers, bacteria living in the gut may play a part, munching on the undigestible parts of chocolate and fermenting polyphenols to produce smaller compounds that are more readily absorbed. The group put different cocoa powders through a model digestive tract, then fed the leftovers to human gut bacteria, and showed that some of the simpler phenolic acids produced had anti-inflammatory effects. They suggest small amounts of dark chocolate could be combined with prebiotic supplements to help healthy internal gut microbes thrive.
Another piece of chocolate-related research I happened to stumble across was a group at Salt Lake Community College’s efforts to make wine flavoured chocolate. Sydney Richards, one of the students involved, told me the inspiration was a lack of tasty wine-chocolate combinations already out there. Most wine chocolates tend to be flavoured with a liquid filling like a liqueur or crunchy crystalline pieces, and neither taste great. But the group have come up with a simpler to get the chocolate to pick up the wine flavour, without the two even having to touch. Chocolate naturally absorbs nearby volatile compounds (Richards told me her supervisor found this out to her cost after storing some chocolate in the same drawer as a bar of soap!). The group have already used this effect to capture mint, coffee and fruit flavours in chocolate, so decided to try a similar approach with wine. The set up is simple – the chocolate is put on a rack above a bowl of wine and left for about two weeks, which allows it to absorb flavour volatiles like 3-methylbutan-1-ol and succinic acid derivatives which make it taste nice and wine-y. I’m assured the results with dark chocolate and red wine are pretty tasty, though the white wine version tends to get bitter over time.
— The Agave plant (c) Shutterstock
On the subject of booze, agave plants (from which tequila is made) were also the focus of some interesting research, but as a source of sweeteners rather than spirits. A group led by Mercedes López at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico are interested in using undigestible parts of the plant as sugar substitutes for diabetic or obese people. Their work focussed on agavins – long chains of fructose sugar that aren’t digested. Agavins (not to be confused with agave syrup, which is rich in fructose monomers) taste much less sweeter than sugar, but López’s group have found some evidence they can help reduce cravings and regulate blood sugar – they found that mice given agavins in their water ate less food and lost weight compared with control groups. Their blood sugar was also lower than those given sugars like glucose and fructose, or the artificial sweetener aspartame. These initial results look promising, but more needs to be done to explore agavins’ potential, and their neutral taste is an obvious limitation.
On the 24th of June this year, Chemistry World will be presenting a prize for an outstanding poster during the 3rd Royal Society of Chemistry Younger Members Symposium (YMS2014) at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
YMS2014 is a one-day event organised by the RSC Younger Members Network. This interdisciplinary symposium aims to provide young chemists with the opportunity to present at a major national conference, as well as the chance to network with their peers and to find out about the latest advances across the chemical sciences. Professor Lesley Yellowlees (President of the Royal Society of Chemistry) and Professor Alice Roberts (Head of Public Engagement at the University of Birmingham) will be giving keynote lectures at the conference.
Early-career chemists from all disciplines are invited to register and submit abstracts for oral and poster presentations. Posters should have a clear scientific rationale and present the author’s latest work. They will be judged on the quality and originality of the work as well the presentation skills of the author, with special emphasis on their ability to communicate their work to non-experts from other disciplines.
There will be four parallel sessions: Education & Outreach, Organic & Biochemistry, Physical & Analytical and Inorganic & Materials. Chemistry World is proud to be sponsoring the poster prize for the Inorganic & Materials category. I’ll be judging the prize alongside a select committee and the winner will receive £150, with £100 and £50 going to the runners up.
To register for the conference, visit this page: rsc.li/NzUB06
We look forward to reviewing your posters.
Mid-March is one of my favourite times of the year: the days are getting longer, I can start hanging my washing outside and Cambridge is buzzing from its annual science festival.
With over 250 events across the two weeks, it was difficult to decide what to attend but I tried to squeeze in as much as I could. Here are some of my highlights from the first week:
On Monday, Tim Radford chaired a discussion between Patrica Fara, Rosie Bolton and Gerry Gilmore asking ‘What’s new in space?’ The answer? A 1 billion pixel camera aboard the Gaia satellite, which was launched at the end of last year. Back on the ground, there’s the Square Kilometre Array, a project that is set to start building thousands of 15m wide radio dishes across two sites in the southern hemisphere from 2018. So we’ll be obtaining a lot of data – big data – but rather than answering questions, the panel said that scientists first need to figure out the right questions to ask.
Wednesday saw Molly Stevens, of Imperial College London, deliver the annual WiSETI lecture. She combined a fascinating account of her unusual career path, which she described as a series of lucky events and accidents, with an overview of the exciting research going on in her group. Rather than a general call for science to improve the way it approaches women with children, Stevens explained the practicalities of how she actually did it. Her group must be the epitomy of multidisciplinary research, containing engineers, surgeons, chemists and mathematicians. She described some interesting work they published last year where they used nano-analytical electron microscopy techniques to visualise calcific lesions around heart valves, aortae and coronary arteries to better understand the pathophysiological processes underlying cardiovascular disease.
It was an early start on Saturday to fit in a couple of hours on the Royal Society of Chemistry’s stand in the chemistry department. We had some fantastic experiments this year. One was based on a scenario where a famous painting has been stolen from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The ‘thief’ had left a note at the scene saying that they plan to strike again, so the children were tasked with using chromatography to analyse pens from the top three suspects and match it to the ink in the note. It turns out the culprit was Leonardo da Pinchi (teehee).
Earlier this month the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition reached its conclusion. Now in its second year, the competition attracted around 100 entries from every corner of the world. The quality of the entries was outstanding and we are delighted that so many chose to take part and share their interpretations of openness in science. Thanks to everyone who submitted an entry.
We whittled the entries down to a shortlist of 10, and these finalists were invited along to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s London office, Burlington House, to attend a prize giving event organised by one of our sponsors (AkzoNobel). They were also asked to pitch their stories to the audience, which included members of the press, representatives of industry and a selection of academics.
After much deliberation the decision was as follows:
In first place was Tessa Fiorini, with ‘Connecting the dots: the birth of modern chemistry through openness’, an article about Antoine Lavoisier. Fiorini argued that Lavoisier is hailed as the father of modern chemistry thanks to his open approach to science and his ability to connect the dots rather than because of his own discoveries.
Out first runner up was Elizabeth Tasker with ‘Tunnelling through barriers to explain the impossible’. Elizabeth is currently an Assistant Professor in the Physics Department at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, and her article is in support of multidisciplinarity.
The second runner up was Debbie White with ‘A day in the office’. Debbie has added an element of mystery to the competition this year as she has requested to remain anonymous and write under a pseudonym. When you read her story you’ll understand why…
Fiorini is from Malta so her decision to travel for the day paid off when she received a certificate from Robert Parker, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and a cheque for £500. The runners up received cheques for £250 and £100, respectively. In addition, Fiorini be travelling to Sweden to visit AkzoNobel’s surface science laboratory and then to Newcastle to visit the facilities of our second sponsor, Procter & Gamble.
All three entries will be published in the May issue of Chemistry World and we will work with Fiorini once she is back from her trip to write and publish a summary of her experience.
The theme of the panel discussion was ‘Future proofing the UK’s chemistry using industries’, with Clive Cookson, science editor of the Financial Times, moderating the panel of Ian Shott (Technology Strategy Board and Chemistry Growth Partnership), Carol Boyer-Spooner (chief executive, Chemistry Innovation), Andrew Burgess (chief scientist, AkzoNobel), Tony Ryan (pro-vice chancellor, University of Sheffield) and David Jakubovic (open innovation director, Procter & Gamble) taking part. The AkzoNobel event was a day-long affair that continued with a panel discussion and the award ceremony for the UK science award 2014. This year the accolade was awarded to John Goodby from University of York, UK, for his work on liquid crystals. He’s being profiled in the April issue of Chemistry World so keep an eye on our website to read about his career and achievements.
The panel advocated closer working relationships between industry and academia as a way of accelerating innovation and unlocking sustainable technologies. The experts saw this combination of entrepreneurial spirit and academic capability as playing to the UK’s strengths and thus as a means of securing growth and future-proofing chemical companies and the users of chemicals.
A great day was had by all and I’d like to thank AkzoNobel and Procter & Gamble for sponsoring the competition and the ceremony, an event which just keeps getting better and better.
I’d also like to thank the judges for their time, invaluable comments and excellent sense of humour.
And finally, thanks again to all those who took part. It was a pleasure reading your entries and we hope to hear from many of you again next year.
Bibiana Campos Seijo
How childbirth in rural Africa, petunias and deadly marine snails combined to open the door for new types of drug.
In the future, sufferers of chronic pain may simply need to sip petunia tea or pop a petunia seed pill in order to alleviate their symptoms. These petunias would have been genetically modified to produce small, circular peptides very similar to conotoxins, produced in the wild by a family of marine molluscs called cone snails.
Conotoxins have been investigated as potential painkillers for at least a decade. As slow moving animals, cone snails rely on a cocktail of chemicals that rapidly targets the nervous system to paralyse their prey before they can eat them. One drug based on these toxins, ziconotide (Prialt), is already approved for use in humans, but this protein drug is broken down in the digestive tract so it must be administered into the spine. Although effective, this method is intrusive and creates an infection risk, so is understandably undesirable.
David Craik and his team at the University of Queensland realised that they could make an oral version of these peptides by cyclisation – using solid-phase peptide chemistry to link the two end amino acids into a closed loop. Through this process they have manufactured a number of peptides that block chronic pain in rodent models more effectively than morphine and gabapentin, the current gold standard for chronic pain.
At the American Chemical Society meeting in Dallas, Texas, Craik announced the design and development of five new synthetic cyclic peptides based on the cone snail toxins. Importantly, they have also identified examples of plants within five major families that naturally produce cyclic peptides: rubiacae (including coffee), violaceae (violets and pansies), cucurbitaceae (squashes, cucumbers, watermelons and more), solanaceae (such as potato and tomato) and fabaceae (legumes).
Craik now hopes to incorporate genes for their designed peptides into plants, and has identified the petunia as a very good host. ‘When we started to do this work, we originally thought that we would use tobacco as the host plant: it’s a very easy plant to transform and it’s a model plant. When we put the genes for related molecules into tobacco, we did produce some cyclic peptide, but we got mainly linear. That’s where the petunia is the big breakthrough. Petunia already produces cyclotides, and so if we put a foreign modified conotoxin gene into it, the petunia is fantastic at producing the cyclic version with almost no misprocessed linear version.’ This opens the door for new cyclic peptide based drugs that are able to be used for more than just pain control, and as these drugs can be very well targeted, they could reduce the burden of side effects.
The plant-based method also allows drugs to be developed away from the sterile laboratory environment, according to Craik: ‘We started this work thinking that we could actually make medicine for third world countries. Not so much pain drugs, but for other applications. The reason we got on to circular plant proteins in the first place was because women in Africa take a plant, called Oldenlandia affinis, make a tea from it, sip the tea during labour and it accelerates childbirth. It turns out that the active uterotonic agent is a cyclic peptide called kalata-B1. … We were thinking that if we could put high tech protein drugs into plants like that in Africa then people could have these sorts of medicines essentially growing in their back yard.’
Last week the youth section of the Royal Flemish Chemical Society (Jong-KVCV) held its biennial Chemistry Conference for Young Scientists (ChemCYS) in Blankenberge, Belgium. For many attendees it will have been their first experience of a conference. And it’s a great way to start. Blankenberge was cold and miserable but the warmth of the people inside certainly made up for the weather. Masters students, PhD students and postdocs can present their work in a non-intimidating and supportive environment.
Originally set-up as an event for Belgian groups to network, the conference has been steadily growing in size over the past few editions. This year it made an impressive leap in the variety of nationalities attending the conference with delegates from 37 different countries (only nine countries were represented in 2012). I met people from Costa Rica, Algeria and Taiwan to name a few of the furthest places delegates had come from. Considering that until 2008 the conference was held in Dutch, before changing to English in 2010, this is a huge achievement. Hanne Damm, the president of Jong-KVCV says the internationalisation of the conferee can chiefly be credited to the President of ChemCYS 2014, Thomas Vranken, securing recognition of the conference from IUPAC, EuCheMS and EYCN.
The increase in delegate numbers has come alongside a commitment to high standards. Presentation abstracts were peer reviewed and were selected on merit rather than the first come, first served selection applied in previous years. Each of the six subject areas (analytical and environmental chemistry, biochemistry and biotechnology, inorganic chemistry, advanced materials, organic and medicinal chemistry, and physical and theoretical chemistry) had a panel of judges from both academia and industry who chaired and presided over the presentations and posters in each area.
But the conference wasn’t just about posters and presentations. Santiago Gómez Ruiz gave an informative workshop on the art of scientific writing where he explained his top tips for putting a research paper together. His advice included: ‘self-cite only when necessary’, ‘don’t include waste words in your title’ and ‘never include something in your methods section that is crucial for understanding a paper’ – I couldn’t agree more!
Rather appropriately, as it was just before an evening when delegates may have indulged in a glass or two of beer, Klaus Roth gave a fascinating talk called ‘Beer – from the first glass to a hangover.’ In 50 minutes he covered everything from how beer is made, the compounds behind the classic bitter flavour of beer and why something that can make you feel so good that evening can leave you suffering the morning after.
The conference organisers are a team of 20, who are PhD students and postdocs themselves. They voluntarily organised the conference in their spare time, and will soon start planning for 2016. Holding the conference in winter on the edge of a Belgian seaside resort is instrumental in keeping everyone together and maintaining ChemCYS’ cosy atmosphere but the current venue has now reached capacity: ‘maybe they could build an extra building for us?’ jokes Christophe De Bie, the president of KVCV. I hope they find a way to expand on their success.