The romance of carbon monoxide methanation

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 27 August, 2015 - 16:25

Guest post from Tom Branson

Photographs rarely make an appearance on journal covers and for good reason. How exactly are we meant to capture on film a chemical reaction? Well, Catalysis Science and Technology stuck a wonderful example on the cover a recent edition of the journal. So what is their secret to taking a good photo of the goings-on inside a test tube? Well here’s the trick, you don’t.

The cover image is for an article by Tada and Kikuchi from The University of Tokyo and highlights their review on carbon monoxide removal techniques using methanation. But the photo quite simply shows a man and woman in traditional Japanese dress meeting under parasols on a bridge in a park. No molecules, no bonds, no science! But at the bottom of the image they did manage to sneak in some explanation linking their image, albeit vaguely, to actual chemistry. Coincidentally ingeniously the colours of our two protagonists clothing match those of the words CO and H2, but this link is a bit of a stretch.

Nevertheless it’s a beautiful picture of the couple coming together and you can imagine the promiscuity of some chemical reactions being similar to the delicacies of romance. Or that an active metal surface is often the catalyst for love. Or that the bridge leads to CO and to the heart and er, well, as you can see the metaphors are endless…

What makes the picture really special however, is that it is actually a wedding photograph of author Tada and his wife. Taken in Kiyosumi Garden in Tokyo when Tada was in the midst of his PhD, he told me that it is their favourite shot from the day.

The article itself focuses on the different techniques for the improvement of the activity and selectivity of CO methanation, which you obviously already realised from the cover art. They discuss the need to increase the active sites where CO and H2 can adsorb easily (the couple meeting together) and where CO2 cannot adsorb (hidden at the back behind the bushes). This idea highlights the importance of an active surface for bringing together the two components (hence the bridge – it’s all starting to make sense now right, right?)

Whilst this picture is maybe not the most descriptive ever in terms of its scientific value, it was arresting enough to make me stop and enquire more. I believe that’s the role of a journal cover, so I’d say it has done its job there. And, of course, full points to Tada for getting his photo on a scientific journal cover. How many other people can boast that their wedding photographs now have a place in the hallowed halls of academic literature?

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Categories: Education

What does the energy mix look like in 2050?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 24 August, 2015 - 17:56

On 11 September 2015, Chemistry World will host a panel discussion at the ISACS conference being held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The discussion will  explore how chemical renewable energy can fit into the world’s future energy supply.

Panelists include:

If you want to come along, RSVP here:

There’s still time to register for the conference: Student registration is only $80.

But if you can’t make it, don’t worry – we’ll be making a video of the best bits. And you can still get involved beforehand – tweet us your questions for the panel with the hashtag #EMix2050, or leave a comment below.


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Categories: Education

Largo in a lonely lab

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 4 August, 2015 - 13:58

Guest post by Heather Cassell

Sometimes life in the lab can be a quiet and lonely affair. Isolation can creep in if your experiment requires long and unsociable hours, or you’re using a specialised bit of equipment that lives on its own, or simply when your lab mates are not around. The fact that labs often buzz with the hustle and bustle of science in action makes these contrasting moments all the more stark.


Not that isolation is always a bad thing – if you are working hard and on a project that takes a lot of concentration then it can be a relief to be on your own. Being antisocial can allow you to get on with what you are doing without being disturbed. But if you have gaps in what you are doing – between multiple short incubation times or centrifuge runs, for example – then being on your own can be a drag and the few minutes you need to wait can feel like an age.

So I keep myself busy: I get useful small lab tasks done (with one eye on the clock), begin planning my next experiment, make sure my notebook is up to date. Sometimes it’s possible to simply sit and enjoy the peace and solitude. If you are lucky enough to work in a lab where you can listen to music on either a communal radio or a personal stereo, then this can really help to pass the time, and as you are on your own you can put on any music that you like, as long as it’s not too loud!

But music, communal or otherwise, is not always permitted for perfectly understandable health and safety reasons. I’ve worked in a few labs where we were not allowed radios or personal stereos and for me this is a big problem as I’m really prone to earworms. If you’ve not heard of these, I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept – these are those really annoying tunes, or even just snippets of music, that get stuck in your head. They often appear without rhyme or reason (well, with rhyme, but for no reason), and can loop for days until they eventually vanish of their own accord, often to be replaced by another maddeningly catchy musical motif.

If when I’m waiting for an incubation to end or for a centrifuge to finish running then you can bet that something annoying will pop in my head. Without the presence of other people to keep me in check, it is far too easy to end up singing along (badly) with the music in my mind, and this has led to a few embarrassing moments. Imagine your colleagues catching you singing Christmas carols in June, belting out cheesy 80′s songs, or – worst of all – merrily humming the theme tune to a kids’ TV program (I had Mike the Knight stuck in my head for weeks!).

So if you hear an unexpected musical performance echoing around an otherwise empty lab, perhaps it’s a colleague enjoying a period of solitude. But be warned – earworms are notoriously contagious, so the next time you’re alone, you may find yourself humming along.

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Categories: Education

Bouncing back

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 4 August, 2015 - 13:23

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Perhaps, if you spend enough time looking, you can find anything. So it was for Charles Goodyear, a would-be inventor who, at the expense of everything else, bounced back after every failure, devoting his life to transforming natural rubber into a commercially useful material. He saw the potential immediately – just not the chemistry.

The rubber in Goodyear’s hands during the early 1830s wasn’t a particularly useful material. It was temperamental: whilst it exhibited promising properties including elasticity, hydrophobicity, adhesiveness and electrical insulation, when it got hot it would melt and turn into a horrible sticky slime, and when it got cold in the chilly English weather it would become brittle and readily crack.

Looking at the structure of rubber, it all makes sense: a natural cis polymer of isoprene, this allowed it to stretch (whereas the trans polymer of isoprene, gutta-percha, is crystalline) and the chains could readily flow past each other, especially when warmed. Equally, when solidified, splits could propagate rapidly and directionally between the chains of polymers. Goodyear put a lot of time and effort into trying to mop up the runny rubber by mixing it with various different dry powders and attempting to reform it into a ball. But it would take chemical rather than physical methods to get this compound to bend to his will.

Rubber was introduced to Europe by Charles Marie de La Condamine in 1736 and named by Joseph Priestley, who first studied it in the UK. Made from latex sap, it is a gooey, milky white colloid containing around 35% polyisoprene molecules and 5% impurities – mostly natural organic impurities like proteins, sugars and fatty acids – and inorganic salts, all suspended in a solution. This colloid is tapped from the Hevea brasilienesis rubber tree by cutting long diagonal strips in the bark and letting it run. Astonishingly, after 3 hours of tapping, a tree produces only enough latex to fill a cup. Eventually the latex coagulates, much like blood clotting over a wound, and is pressed to dry it of excess liquids.

As pressing had worked before, Goodyear was convinced that his rubber just needed to be dried out a little more, and no matter how many times he failed, he bounced back and tried again, much like the rubber he was toying with. One of the drying powders Goodyear used was sulfur. It didn’t work, but he persisted. He persisted so much that he did months of jail time for debt, only to come back out and begin again. He was a man driven by obsession, passionate about a utopian vision of ubiquitous rubber (he may have dreamed of tyres, marigolds and Wellington boots.)

Then, one day, he accidentally dropped his precious sulfur-dried rubber on the stove, filling the air with the horrible eggy reek of burning sulfur. Somehow, Goodyear managed to get the blackened and pungent rubber back off the stove, and to examine what he’d done to it. What he found was exactly what he’d been looking for all these years, what he’d got into debt and gone to prison for – vulcanised rubber. The new vulcanised rubber did neither melt nor crack, was harder wearing and more chemically resistant than its precursor, whilst remaining springy and becoming even more waterproof. He was elated.

Although Goodyear never really understood the structural changes he had made to rubber, its interesting characteristics are today widely appreciated. By creating sulfur crosslinks between the polyisoprene, the rubber essentially becomes one big molecule. When deformed, the sulfur crosslinks make it spring back into shape and stop it from running fluidly in the heat, or interrupt the propagation of cracks, making a tough, energy absorbent material. Hard to break down, the sulfur crosslinks do make rubber hard to recycle and impossible to reshape: light crosslinking allows a compromise between unvulcanised thermoplastic or vulcanised thermosetting properties and other chemical modifiers may be added, as today they often are.

After his years of debt and obsession, Goodyear’s clumsy breakthrough came too late to free him of his financial constraints, and he died in debt in 1860. The ‘Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’ was founded in 1898, and named in his honour.

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Categories: Education

July 2015: Summer Science Exhibition

Royal Society R.Science - 31 July, 2015 - 14:05

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ISACS16 poster prize winner: Oliver Thorn-Seshold

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 24 July, 2015 - 11:33

— Oliver Thorn-Seshold

Chemistry World was delighted to sponsor a poster prize at ISACS16 (Challenges in Chemical Biology), held in Zurich, Switzerland, last month. Oliver Thorn-Seshold was the winner with his poster entitled ‘Photoswitchable inhibitors of microtubule dynamics: Photostatins optically control mitosis and cell death.’

Oliver explains his work:

‘My motivation was to take a shot at curative tumour chemotherapy, based on a mechanism that has not been explored for drugs before – reversibly light-targetable cytotoxins.

The idea is to apply the drug globally in the patient, but activate it locally in the tumour by illuminating the tumour zone with pulses of blue light. Outside the tumour zone, the drug should remain inactive. One could therefore use higher doses than conventionally possible, so therapeutic effectiveness can be improved whilst limiting side effects.

‘It turns out, that photostatins are a great proof-of-concept on the molecular level for this idea! Our initial photostatins can essentially be switched ON and OFF (and /ON/OFF/ON/…) – since the ON state is more than 250 times more toxic than the OFF state: this is about an order of magnitude more powerful than any switchable compounds shown before. We can reversibly toggle between those states inside living cells and tissues just by applying light or not – which is also a new step for the field. So we can set up spatially-defined toxicity – a proof-of-concept for tumour-site-selective therapy.’

Oliver got hooked on classical organic chemistry in high school, deviated into theoretical chemistry and optics during his degree at the University of Sydney in Australia, returned to focus on bioorganic chemistry for his PhD at the University of Lyon in France, then found a home in the Trauner research group at the University of Munich in Germany, where he combined his passion for organic synthesis, logic and modelling, light, and chemical biology, to work on photostatins in his current position as postdoc.

Oliver and his colleagues continue to work on tuning the light response of photostatins, using substituent pattern shifts for small changes as well as designing entirely different response regimes. This is aimed at sophisticated research applications, looking deeper into cell functions than current photostatins can do; and also to develop photostatins that can be controlled by red light in deep tissue settings.

The project itself began in 2012 when Thorn-Seshold ran out of funding for his PhD and couldn’t get an extension to finish it. So together with Gosia Borowiak, who was also finishing her PhD, they submitted cancer-targeting strategies to small funding calls and eventually scraped together three different funds to cover 75 days’ work.

‘We hit many problems, bridging chemistry and biology with optics, but I think having disjointed skills – I hadn’t even seen a cell under a microscope and Gosia’s last time in the chemistry lab was 10 years ago – worked out well, as by really working together we could do something new in chemical biology despite our total inexperience in each other’s fields.’

Thorn-Seshold and his colleagues have now published this research in the journal Cell.


There’s still time to submit a poster abstract for ISACS18 (challenges in organic materials and supramolecular chemistry) to be held in Bangalore, India, in November. Winners will receive £250, a highly sought-after Chemistry World mug and a certificate.

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Categories: Education

Quotable chemistry – a Chemistry World competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 9 July, 2015 - 12:15

The history of chemistry is littered with memorable quotes like this, penned by Johann Joachim Becher, in the 1667 work Physica Subterranea. The best quotes are striking sentences or poignant paragraphs that hold fast in the mind, long after their source has faded from memory, snippets and soundbites that encapsulate feeling or opinion.

To celebrate quotable chemistry, we’re launching a competition to find our favourite quotations. Send in humorous or inspiring quotes, along with a reference for where we can find them, and you could win £50 of Amazon vouchers! Second place will win a £25 voucher, and three runners up will each receive a Chemistry World mug.

To make sure your quotes are available to the widest possible audience, we’re working with the Wikiquote project to collect and archive the quotes for posterity. I’m sure you’re familiar with Wikipedia, and Wikiquote is one of a dozen or so projects run along similar lines (freely accessible and reusable content, compiled by volunteers from all around the world) by the Wikimedia Foundation. It’s a compendium of humorous and inspirational quotations by notable people, all checked for veracity and cited back to original sources. And, of course, like Wikipedia, it’s a compendium that anyone can edit.

Wikiquote has a section on chemistry-related material and we, working with the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Wikimedian in residence, Andy Mabbett, are going to expand it – with your help. As well as offering prizes for the best (the funniest; the most poignant) chemistry related quotations; we will share all the entries with the Wikiquote community.

To be in with a chance of winning, simply send us a quotation, plus the name of the author and the source (a web link is fine, as is citation to a journal or book, but please be as precise as possible; giving page numbers, for example). Check first, to make sure your entry isn’t already in Wikiquote!

The full terms and conditions are below, but the most important things to know are:

  • We can only accept entries by email (feel free to tweet your favourite quotes, but they won’t count if they don’t reach our email inbox)
  • Entries must include a quotation and a source suitable for citation
  • To be eligible, entries cannot already be in Wikiquote
  • You must include your name and home county

So send your favourite quotation to for your chance to win!





Chemistry World Wikiquote competition terms and conditions

The competition opens at 12:01pm on 9 July 2015 and closes at 12:01pm on 31 July 2015.

Entries must be submitted by email and include the entrant’s full name and county. Multiple entries can be included in the same email, if they are all from the same entrant.

Entry is open worldwide, but voucher prizes will be offered in Stg£ only.

Entrants under the age of 18 are welcome, but must include written consent from a parent or guardian in their email entry. 

All entries must be notable quotation related to chemistry that are not already listed on Wikiquote, and that have an author, and a source that is suitable for citation.

Quotations will be shared with the Wikiquote community, but suggestion of a quotation does not guarantee inclusion on Wikiquote.

The winner will be the person deemed to have submitted the most entertaining or unusual chemistry quotation as determined by the judges. There will be one top prize, one second prize, and three runners-up prizes.

The winners will be selected by a judging panel including the editor of Chemistry World. The judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

The prizes on offer are one Stg£50 Amazon voucher for first place, one Stg£25 Amazon voucher for second place, and three Chemistry World mugs, of which the runners-up selected will receive one each.

The winners and runners-up will be contacted by email (using the details provided in the winner’s Eligible Entrants entry email). 

The prize winners will be notified that they have won the prize within twenty eight days (28) of the closing date of the competition.

The promoter is the Royal Society of Chemistry a charity registered in England (with number RC000524) and limited company incorporated in England (with number RC207890) located at Thomas Graham House, Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge, CB4 0WF United Kingdom (Promoter). 

The Promoter is not responsible where applicable for any problems or technical malfunction of any communications network or any late, lost, incorrectly submitted, delayed, ineligible, incomplete, corrupted or misdirected entry whether due to error, transmission interruption or otherwise. The time of entry will be deemed to be the time the entry is received by the Promoter at the designated email account.

If for any reason, including but not limited to technical problems, the competition is not capable of running as planned we reserve the right to cancel the competition.

The names and counties of the winners and runners-up will be published online on the Chemistry World blog, and in other RSC magazines.

Entry details remain the property of the Promoter. Entrants consent to the Promoter using personal information provided in connection with this promotion for the purposes of facilitating the conduct of the promotion and awarding any prizes (including to third parties involved in the promotion, including any applicable statutory authorities).

These terms and conditions shall be governed by English law, and the parties submit to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.


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Categories: Education

Lindau 2015: a noble failure

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 1 July, 2015 - 18:07

As beacons of success in the scientific community, it seems strange that a few Nobel laureates in attendance at Lindau have highlighted the important role failure and frustration play in any scientific endeavour.

Panellists discuss the state of research in Africa and the importance of role models for the younger generation    Credit: Adrian Schröder/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Upon taking to the stage this morning, Steven Chu, 1997 Nobel laureate in physics, described his early career in science as ‘a series of failures’. He discussed how, during his days as a postdoc student, he would become fascinated by a problem, only to quickly move on when spurned in his attempts to answer it.

During his talk on fluorescence microscopy, Eric Betzig, a 2014 laureate in chemistry, openly admitted that he became deeply frustrated with the path his discipline was taking and decided to leave science all together before later arriving back on the scene with a new outlook on scientific inquiry.

In a similar vein, the famed crystallographer, Dan Shechtman, likened his quest to challenge the status quo to that of a cat walking through a gauntlet of German Shepherds.

And yet, they are all here to tread the boards of the Lindau stage. Many have cited perseverance and tenacity as crucial tools in obtaining success in science, but all here at Lindau have stressed that the fortuity of having a brilliant mentor and role model is what set them on the right path.

Like the pervasiveness of the uncertainty principle in science however, the laureates know that each young scientist should have an effective teacher, they just don’t agree on what makes them effective.

This was perfectly encapsulated by Avram Hershko when he highlighted the dichotomy in attitudes between the two scientists who aided him in his early research career. His first true mentor was Jacob Mager from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, who was a ‘rigorous experimentalist’ and had a fierce reputation for adhering to the scientific method. But when Hershko moved to the University of California, US, under the tutelage of Gordon Tomkins, he was exposed to the unbridled imagination of a scientist who didn’t really care for the minutia in experimental detail.

In both cases Tomkins and Mager provided Hershko with an effective canvas to map out his scientific journey, but prove that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to scientific mentorship.

Elsewhere in the conference, the lack of awareness about scientific role models and how this is having a negative impact on science was raised during a panel discussion on the research landscape in Africa. Panel members were quick to address how children in the education system will struggle to break into science if there aren’t any ideals or scientists to aspire to. ‘African students … are aware of Albert Einstein – me too, I like him, he’s the best scientist,’ said Serge Fobofou from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry, Germany. ‘We know less about African scientists.’

Without the Magers and Tomkins of this world having a visible presence in Africa, we run the risk of scientific failure being the end of the road and not simply an obstacle to leap over.

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Categories: Education

Lindau 2015: Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 30 June, 2015 - 10:46

On the idyllic island of Lindau, Germany, you can’t help but be inspired by the beautiful vistas that envelope this small getaway on the edge of Lake Constance, with the town itself embodying the very spirit of the scientific meeting that is currently taking place here.

Nobel laureates (l-r) Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, William Moerner, Martin Chalfie and Steven Chu discuss the nature of interdisciplinarity at the 65th Lindau Nobel meeting. Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

At the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, 65 Nobel laureates from an array of scientific disciplines are hoping to inspire over 650 young scientists from across the world. These early career researchers have been selected from a vast amount of applicants to engage in scientific debate, foster new working relationships and gain inspiration from those who have dared to challenge scientific paradigms.

Delegates were treated to a series of fascinating talks on Monday morning from some of the most recent recipients of the famed Nobel medal. Stefan Hell and Eric Betzig, two recipients of the 2014 Nobel prize in chemistry for their work on super-resolution microscopy, kicked things off in earnest with frank discussions on how they arrived at this point. Hell’s talk in particular resulted in a poignant moment where he confessed that ‘it’s not the 2015 me who started this, but the 1990 me – he deserves the credit’.

This sentiment for creativity and ingenuity as young PhD students was echoed by all of the morning’s speakers, who included fellow laureates Francois Englert, Michael Bishop and the incoming president of the Royal Society, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. All helped to drive home the point that the formative years of any researcher’s career are some of their most fruitful.

Following lunch, delegates wandered through the cobbled streets to the town’s local theatre and sat down for a captivating panel discussion on the nature of interdisciplinary science. The febrile pronouncements from the morning’s session quickly made their way into the panel’s intense discourse.

Betzig was keen to point out that collaboration across scientific boundaries is never an end goal, but grows organically from a fearless conviction to solve a problem. Steven Chu, the 1997 Nobel laureate in physics and US Secretary of Energy until two years ago, was quick to retort, however, that students should not take for granted the power in obtaining great knowledge in a singular science: ‘You have to be deep in a field in order to branch out in a new field.’

But that past knowledge, the pillars of science that some may dare not question, are ultimately what hold us back according to Hell. ‘If you do not detach yourself from previous knowledge, to some extent, you … stay within the framework of this existing knowledge,’ he commented.

Their tenacity to challenge convention is ultimately why these laureates have come to establish new paradigms. But, as the week continues and they continue to inspire these impressionable researchers, I wonder what they will say when these young scientists eventually come to break down theirs?

For live tweets throughout the week, make you sure you check out the twitter hashtag #LiNo15.


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Categories: Education

June 2015: Medals & Awards

Royal Society R.Science - 29 June, 2015 - 16:16

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Categories: Education

The bliss of experimental ignorance

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 25 June, 2015 - 17:50

Guest post by Heather Cassell

Some experiments fail. Despite your best efforts, and especially for experiments that take many steps or a long time to run, you often won’t find out if they have worked until the very end.

Image By Tweenk (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a source of great frustration for a lab-based scientist. So much of your time is dedicated to setting up and running your experiment. Once you’ve made a plan and began the experiment, you have no choice but to blindly carry on assuming everything is fine, before you reach the end and discover whether or not it has worked. If it had then great! You can get on with the important business of analyzing your results to see how they fit in with the rest of your work. If your experiment didn’t work, you need to start the tortuous process of troubleshooting to find out what went wrong.

I have to confess that I enjoy the in between steps, the calm before the storm. There is a certain happiness in not knowing, freeing you up to concentrate on each step of your work, rather than the overall result. At this stage there is positivity and hope that your meticulous planning is going to give you the results you need. This positive attitude can last right up until the results come in, when the illusion can be shattered by the lovely picture of your positive controls and not much else.

So what to do now? Small changes to one of the steps in your process can make a huge difference to your results. Having a good set of both positive and negative controls can be a great help during troubleshooting: if the results show just your positive controls you know the problem is with your samples, if there are no results you know the problem is with the experiment. Now where will I find that error?

It is even more frustrating if you have inherited the protocol, or are trying to replicate one given in a paper. Even worse is a failing in a method you’ve had success with in the past! You can resolve many problems with patience and dedication, but sometimes it’s worth running the problem by someone else just to check you are not making a simple mistake that you have overlooked. Is the incubator at the wrong temperature? Have you added the wrong antibiotic? (Both common sleep deprivation related problems.)

You can spend days, weeks, even months tweaking the conditions of your experiment to make it work. But it is important that you don’t keep going round in circles or blindly repeating yourself, take notes, take a step back or take a deep breath and ask for help! Everyone has bad days in the lab, it’s how you react to them that shows how well suited you are to science.

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Categories: Education

Painless party time

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 15 June, 2015 - 15:30

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Some discoveries are made after hunting hard for the answer, some come to you when you need them most, and some just turn up at parties. Such was the discovery of modern anaesthetics.

Method of administering nitrous oxide used by Samuel lee Rymer in London, 1863
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The concept of anaesthetics and their application to relieve pain during surgery was not wholly new. The Mesopotamians used alcohol (and its use persisted in resource deprived times such as war as late as 1812) and the ancient Chinese used acupuncture. The Sumerians may have used opium and Egyptians mandrake, and around a similar time, juniper and coca were put the the same use.

A popular anaesthetic in England between ~1200 and 1500 was Dwale – a mixture of varying composition containing opium and hemlock as well as lettuce, bile and bryony. Mandrake roots were chewed, extracting the active ingredients in doses that varied with chewing time or vigour. This was a risky business: low doses were often insufficient to fully mask the pain of surgery or put the patient to sleep, but at doses not much higher, many of these substances would become fatally toxic. Enough to make you numb just thinking about it.

However, these drugs have pronounced differences from the ones we are now familiar with. Most were applied locally, by rubbing a paste into the skin.

Because of the suffering and associated risks, many patients would choose not to undergo surgery, even in the face of otherwise certain death. The best surgeons were the fastest surgeons and although anaesthetics were administered, they were normally considered unreliable and untrustworthy. There was also the problem of testing new products – animal testing had limited feedback, and many drugs were piloted during dental operations or other painful, low-risk medical procedures. Even as late as the early 1800s, Henry Hill Hickman was busy gassing animals with carbon dioxide, trying to achieve the perfect balance between loss of sensation and death, where he might amputate one of their limbs without objection.

Luckily there was a good resource of keen volunteer test subjects just waiting to be tapped into: Party goers.

During the late 18th century, chemists as we now know them started to emerge. Amongst their many exploits was the extraction and characterisation of many of the active ingredients found in ancient remedies. Opium was found to contain morphine, a narcotic pain reliever, and the active components of the mandrake root are atropine and scopolamine – two alkaloids that, similar to coniine, the hemlock ingredient, produce varying effects from respiratory paralysis to heart palpitations. In coca, cocaine acts as a stimulant, and in juniper, terpinen-4-ol is simply a diuretic. Purifying these products allowed better dose control, understanding of the mechanism behind the active drug, and the classification of groups of compounds, allowing potential new products to be identified and developed. In particular, a new theory of gases was developed accompanying the discovery of dozens of new kinds of air, work pioneered by the gas giant Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, ammonia, hydrogen chloride and, in 1772, nitrous oxide, which he formed by combining iron metal and nitric acid, then collecting the bubbles of gas this produced.

Later, in 1799, Sir Humphrey Davy realised that nitrous oxide, or NO2, could be breathed by humans, and that breathing it produced a rather interesting result – it made you laugh. Nicknaming his discovery ‘laughing gas’, Davy went on to demonstrate the hilarious effects of nitrous oxide at the Royal Society, and several parties, where the habit took on. Alongside laughing gas, breathing ether became popular, and all the best parties had them.

It was whilst under the influence of one of these favourite party boosters that one man literally stumbled upon scientific enlightenment. At an 1844 event, Horace Wells looked on as a man seriously damaged his leg, but carried on with his activities regardless. When questioned about his lack of regard for the bleeding appendage, he told Wells he couldn’t feel any pain from it. Wells quickly realised that the laughing gas had altered the man’s perception of pain – a pain he would wake to when the effect of the nitrous oxide wore off.

Along with other fathers of modern anaesthesia, Horace Wells turned party time into serious science – as painlessly as possible. Through understanding of circulation, dosage and patient idiosyncrasy, the general anaesthetic was realised, and surgery revolutionised, NO contest.

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Categories: Education

Satisfy your sweet tooth with chewing gum and fucose cakes

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 9 June, 2015 - 12:25

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. LecB is your typical brick–like protein with four binding sites (one at each corner), whilst RSL is a hexamer ring with 6 binding sites positioned around the bottom face of the hoop. So what binds best to these different sugar hungry proteins? The modified fullerenes can be used to present the sugars in a wide display and after testing different spacer lengths and different valencies they found that, contrary to most medical advice, more sugar was generally better. But only generally – because it depends on the geometry of the binding sites, matching this display also your helps your cause. And if there are too many binding units then it can get too crowded and nobody can get their hands on the sugary groups. Therefore, presentation, arrangement and quantity are all important for attracting the most guests to your desert table.

Not one but two delightful treats were conceived by the authors for showing off their sugary balls. The digital abstract focuses on a set of fullerene based cakes. I wonder if there was competition in the lab as to which recipe would make it to the cover? Cakes and other sticky treats are often used to highlight carbohydrate/sugar research and offer one of many simple means to entice public interest. My old (in the sense of in the past, not by age I hasten to add) PhD supervisor, Bruce Turnbull, shows off his research and his lab’s sweet tooth with the traditional group cake bakeoff, now a modest Twitter sensation. And check out this great YouTube video starting with the sugar in your cup of tea and ending with fertilisation.

Funding for this publication was partly provided by the European COST action MultiGlycoNano, which I was also fortunate to benefit from during my time at university. This European money pot took me to Holland, Italy and France, the latter being where I actually first met Anne Imberty, one of the authors of this study, and heard her talk about lectin binding. My own research on protein-carbohydrate interactions was very close to this subject, although not referenced by this OBC paper (come on Anne; do my H-index a favour!)

The paper is marked as a Hot Article in OBC, which means that it is free to read for the next 4 weeks. So go go go read it now before you have to pay and before the bacteria get their receptors all over those gumballs.



Jean-François Nierengarten, one of the authors of the OBC paper, sent us some extra pictures of chemical confectionery (fondant fullerenes?) with the following explanation:

You may be interested by the story behind this picture. One post-doc of the group, Sebastian Guerra, has shown the picture to his father in law, Mr Pellaton, he is the owner of a chocolate shop in a small Swiss village (Peseux). After a couple of weeks, the fullerene-shaped chocolate became reality, a quite unexpected application of our research project on fullerene sugar balls. Of course, the prototype did not survive a long time at home when my son realized that the fullerene ball was made from real chocolate!

Tom Branson is wondering if there was a competition in the lab as to which recipe would make it to the cover. Actually, it was not the case. During my spare time, I enjoy preparing 3D figures with Cheetah3D (a fantastic software for Mac). I had the one with the chocolate ready at the time we submit the paper (I’m using it for my lectures) and following the invitation to prepare the cover, I had simply an excuse to prepare a new figure!

As an additional example, I have enclosed a figure I’m using to illustrate a very recent Chem. Sci. paper in my lectures:


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Categories: Education

Academic family: Rosalind Franklin

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 2 June, 2015 - 17:19

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.

As you can see from her academic family tree, Franklin is connected to a considerable number of Nobel prize winners in medicine or physiology, physics and chemistry. In 1938, Franklin began her studies in chemistry (natural sciences) at Cambridge University and remained there to undertake physical chemistry research under Ronald Norrish, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1967 for his flash photolysis research. In 1951, Franklin began work at King’s College as a research associate under Sir John Randall, alongside Wilkins and Raymond Gosling. It was at Kings College that Franklin applied her x-ray diffraction expertise to the structure of DNA.

Through Kenneth Holmes, Franklin is also connected to Aaron Klug who won the 1982 Nobel prize in chemistry for his research on crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes. Franklin also worked with Klug during her time at Birkbeck College and he became a supporter and advocate – writing a Nature article on how Franklin came to find the correct structure of DNA  and taking part in an interview on what it was like working with her. During her time at Birkbeck College, Franklin worked under John Bernal, himself a pioneer in x-ray crystallography within molecular biology. Bernal began his illustrious research career under the supervision of William Bragg, who shared the1915 Nobel prize in physics with his son for their x-ray diffraction research.

It is a great shame that Franklin could not share 1962 prize for her key role in determining the structure of DNA, however, I do hope that she is remembered as one of the great women in science.

If you are a woman in science, why not head to Twitter and post your picture with a chemistry tool or instrument, using the hashtag #girlswithtoys, to show the world that chemistry girls have cool toys too!

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Categories: Education

May 2015: Data and the dragons’ den

Royal Society R.Science - 29 May, 2015 - 16:54

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Categories: Education

Left-handed in the lab

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 21 May, 2015 - 11:20

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.

Problems can occur when communal equipment is set up for right-handed people, for example gel running tanks: if you are loading your gel with your left hand you can end up contorting into strange positions in order to achieve the correct angle. Fail to do so and you may get the wrong well! The only other option seems to be moving the equipment every time you need to use it.

But sometimes the problem lies in design: in fume cupboards and some machines, all of the buttons or taps tend to be on the right hand side. We left-handers either have to adapt how we do our experiment so we can reach or just use our right hands instead. Luckily, practice makes perfect!

A major bugbear of mine is the pipette. There are some brands that I just can’t use due to their design: I’ll quite happily put the tip on and start to transfer the small volume of liquid, but somewhere along the way I will have caught the tip release button with the bottom of my thumb and the liquid will slowly be seeping out, not very useful when accuracy is paramount. Other brands are absolutely fine and I can use them without incident, but it can be very frustrating trying to work out which pipettes I can use, so woe betide anyone who takes my special pipettes!

Although being left handed can be a nuisance in the lab, it’s barely a minor inconvenience compared with the problems faced by, for example, wheelchair users. Some labs now have height adjustable fume cupboards that allow people in wheelchairs to work comfortably at the hood, but we still have a long way to go before labs are truly accessible.

For me, once I had overcome the problems associated with being left-handed in the lab, there’s nothing stopping me from getting on with the science and producing some good results!

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Categories: Education

The cost of chemistry: are you spending your own money?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 20 May, 2015 - 15:43

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.

Brett Favaro and I are marine biologists, and we’re worried that an unsustainable situation may be developing in our field – one in which scientific progress and the dissemination of scientific ideas is contingent on the willingness of our colleagues to sacrifice part of their income to the cause. We’re also worried that the need to spend personal funds on research may be an emerging barrier to a new generation of marine biologists. Furthermore, having started to discuss our concerns openly via social media, we’ve realised this is not an issue confined to our discipline. Progress in the chemical sciences as well as future chemistry careers might also be at risk.

We’ve talked to one friend who has to pay bench fees from her own pocket. If she doesn’t pay them, her biochemistry research simply could not happen. In addition, an early response to our research came from a chemist who claimed to have paid nearly $5000 (£3230) in lab start-up costs and about $2000 per year on rolling research costs. Another early respondent told us she paid for all of her research because she wasn’t allocated time to do it in normal working hours, despite it being a requirement of her role as a chemistry lecturer. She paid childcare costs so she could concentrate on completing research in her ‘spare time’.

We’ve had nearly 1500 responses to our research so far, with each respondent filling in an online survey detailing their personal spending on research (or #scispends, as we’re calling them). Great though that response has been, our research networks are in the biological sciences and more than 75% of responses have come from colleagues in our own discipline. We don’t want to waste an opportunity to assess whether the broader scientific community is also under the same degree of financial pressure, or an even greater one. That’s why we are blogging for Chemistry World: we want to know how much of their own personal income chemists are spending on doing their research.

So please take our survey, and join in the debate by engaging with ‘#scispends’ on Twitter. Your contributions will give us the data we need to resolve the problem and hopefully provide you with information you can use to back requests for funding and support for new trainees. Our results will be reviewed in a later print edition of Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

The Mysterious X

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 14 May, 2015 - 17:43

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…

A dark room, because Röntgen was working with light.

A screen coated with barium platinocyanide.

On the bench top nine feet away, a Crookes cathode-ray tube, a large glass gas-filled bulb that fluoresces when a high-voltage electrical current is discharged through it. But the bulb is not visible, because Röntgen has covered it with thick black cardboard to contain the distracting glow (and because it’s currently switched off.)

Then Röntgen turns on the tube and the screen begins to glow green…

Nine feet was further than the reach of the blocked cathode rays that Röntgen understood, and he quickly concluded that he had made a new, unknown kind of ray that could travel through cardboard. He tried it with aluminium, copper and brick – it travelled through all of those too. In fact, the only material he found that could absorb it was thick lead.

So naturally, he did what any discerning 19th century scientist would do in his position: he stuck his hand in it. On the screen, he could see the image of his own bones, surrounded by a greenish glowing flesh. He seized some photographic film, and took the first x-ray image. When he repeated the procedure to photograph his wife’s hand and rings for his publication on a ‘new kind of rays’, she famously cried, ‘I have seen my own death!’

100 years later, medical physicist Gerrit Kemerink of the Maastricht University Medical Center thought to piece together some of the missing evidence, and recreated the setup of some of the very first x-ray machines. With a hand he borrowed from medical supplies, he set up the experiment just as Röntgen might have done, and tested the results. Horrifyingly, he found that the hand needed a full 90 minutes of exposure to create a clear image, providing a radiation dose 1500 times more than the dose supplied by a modern x-ray procedure. No wonder early x-ray testers reported burns and hair loss!

Modern x-ray production methods also help us understand what was going on in Röntgen’s Crookes tube: he used a hot cathode to produce electrons, which were then accelerated under a voltage, striking a metal target and knocking off more electrons. Not only were electrons emitted, but the metal was left full of electron vacancies, holes from where the AWOL electrons had been knocked. X-rays are emitted when high energy electrons shift into lower energy vacancies, and so the energy of the x-ray is specific to the metal they came from. Today, copper anode metals are mostly used, but Röntgen probably produced x-rays by ionising the gas inside his tube. If so, he would have produced lower energy x-rays and so required the longer measuring times.

Röntgen may have burned the notes and reports, preventing us from ever understanding the precise details of his experiments, but he did publish three papers on these mysterious new rays, and left us with an invaluable scientific and medical tool.

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Categories: Education

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