Chemistry World blog (RSC)
We’re running a series of guest posts from the judges of the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition. Here, science writer and Chemistry World columnist Philip Ball considers the place of chemistry in open science initiatives.
In the energetic current discussion about openness in science, chemistry has been largely absent. With the one obvious exception of drug trials – how can we encourage pharmaceutical companies to be more upfront with their findings? – chemistry seems to have been lost somewhere in the space between the life sciences, where the focus is on the accessibility and intelligibility of huge data sets, and physics, where open-access and participatory crowd-sourcing are already well advanced in projects such as the arXiv preprint server and Galaxy Zoo. Perhaps another way of saying this is that it is less obvious what is at stake for chemistry. Might it have continued to thrive on the basis of old models of how science is done, if left alone to do so?
My own view is that, among other things, a preprint server for chemical papers is long overdue, and I would rejoice if some enterprising institution were to initiate one. Partly this is selfish – for a science writer like me, the physics arXiv is an absolute boon for searching out interesting stories at the early stage, although of course this relies on the reader possessing some mechanisms for selectivity and discretion that do not depend on traditional peer review. But it is also invigorating to see how the arXiv has fostered a culture of active debate and engagement among physicists, in which responses to claims and controversies can be rapidly disseminated. That is something any science needs.
A preprint server for biology, called bioRxiv.org, has just been launched by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, and one for chemistry surely can’t be far behind. But that’s not to say that the model established by the arXiv has to be copied by the other sciences – there’s no unique way to go about disseminating and discussing preprints. I’d be interested to know what chemists in particular need and might look for in such a thing (I’d rate graphical abstracts as a must, for instance).
On the issue of data, I have encountered many debates and discussions about specific results and claims that require access to crystal structure data or simulation code. There’s no longer any argument for why such details cannot be made available, both during peer review and on publication. What’s more, computational tools appear to be moving towards greater standardization, so that for example raw data can be checked using off-the-shelf software. And the rise of well informed and well subscribed science blogs offers a growing forum for debating the issues free from the sometimes cumbersome procedures of traditional publishing.
Developments like this do seem to be cohering into a genuinely new way to do science – to forge collaborations, analyse data, share resources, communicate and assess results. No one yet knows what that will mean for time-honoured mechanisms of funding, networking and publishing, although one hopes that it might at least remove some of the entry barriers experienced by smaller laboratories or by researchers in developing countries. I’d love to hear what visions people have!
Philip Ball is a freelance writer. He previously worked for over 20 years as an editor for the international science journal Nature. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media, and has authored many books on the interactions of the sciences, the arts, and the wider culture. Philip also writes for Chemistry Worldand has a regular column – ‘The Crucible‘.
As we mentioned here before this week saw the very first Chemistry World Jobs Live event, held in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s London home, Burlington House. The queues outside and happy faces inside seem to suggest that it was a resounding success.
Over 250 people visited on the day to meet representatives from universities, recruitment agencies and industry. If meeting potential employers wasn’t enough, delegates could opt to have their CV spring cleaned by the Royal Society of Chemistry’s careers advisors, and explored alternative career routes by getting involved with the ‘meet the experts’ panel discussion.
— The Chemistry Centre (@thechemcentre) November 25, 2013
Speaking to attendees, the watchword was opportunities:
‘I’m finishing my PhD, writing up my thesis, so I wanted to look at what opportunities there are available for me as a PhD graduate.’
‘I’m looking for new opportunities to move my career on. I’m currently undergoing a redundancy situation that is not yet resolved, so I’m trying to look into the future a little bit and look for potential new opportunities.’
‘I’m now at the stage when I’m looking for graduate work. [I thought] this would be the perfect opportunity to come along, do a bit of networking, talk to some people. Because I’m still at the point where I don’t actually know what I want to do for a living yet!’
‘I’m looking for a change in emphasis in what I do. Get out of the lab; maybe get into a project management role or consultancy. I thought I’d come along and see what there is on offer.’
[Okay, that last one doesn’t actually use the word ‘opportunity’, but they were probably thinking it.]
— Ben Valsler (@BenValsler) November 25, 2013
For the twenty six exhibitors, including big names like GSK, Pfizer, AWE and AstraZeneca, it was a chance to test the waters of their future employment pool, and encourage the best to think of applying to them first. Their feedback after the event showed how they benefited from an event that outwardly is targeted at jobseekers:
‘From an exhibitor’s point of view it all went off very smoothly … The ‘standard’ of the delegates was very high and we were pleased that a significant proportion of them were what we might describe as being ‘experienced researchers’ … the day was of quite significant value to us in so far as it helped to build our profile with a number of young people who will only be applying in 2014.’
‘Thanks for putting on such a great event yesterday, I felt it was really beneficial for the business to increase its visibility.’
The ‘meet the experts’ part of the day was perhaps harder to quantify – rather than speaking directly to a potential employer, this event was a way to discuss other aspects of career progression.
‘The panel discussions were lively and well attended’ explained Bibiana Campos-Seijo, editor of Chemistry World and member of the panel. ‘The panellists had very different backgrounds and included among others representatives from Saudi Aramco, Hexcel, Royal Society of Chemistry, University of Bradford and none other than TV personality Ricky Martin, of The Apprentice and Total Wipeout fame now heading Hyper Recruitment Solutions in partnership with Lord Alan Sugar. We had an entertaining and diverse spread that reflected experiences both in academia and industry but also gave a flavour of some of the options that are available to those who wish to pursue an international career in the chemical sciences.’
The panel discussed alternative routes into chemistry careers, the value of having a PhD and the drama of facing redundancy. Bibiana noted that, in spite of the different experiences on the panel there were some common themes in the advice meted out to attendees. ‘Remain flexible – plans don’t always go as intended so be prepared to adapt and fully embrace plan B. And be opportunistic – remain resourceful and proactive, not letting opportunities pass you by.’
This approach certainly hit the mark for one attendee, who beamingly explained: ‘I was very pleasantly surprised; I’m very pleased I went. It was very inspiring to hear what they had to say … it really reinforced my enthusiasm and I thought it was very inspiring indeed.’
Chemistry World Jobs Live will return in 2014!
We’re running a series of guest posts from the judges of the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition. This time, writer and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis explains why he thinks openness is a benefit to all.
As researcher, then producer, and finally presenter, I spent 30 years in television, trying to get across to the general public scientific ideas, from why banana skins are slippery to the detector experiments at the Large Hadron Collider.
In the science office at Yorkshire Television, I was surrounded by creative people, but I noticed they came in two varieties. Arriving at the office in the morning with a new idea for an item or a programme, some (afraid of theft or ridicule) would go into a corner, scribble secret notes, and phone advisers; others would tell everyone about the idea, and ask for comments. This latter, open approach was hugely more successful. Some proposals would get instantly laughed out of court, but most would provoke arguments, sometimes heated, and these arguments always improved the basic idea.
In other words, openness paid off handsomely; taking the apparent risk of sharing the idea was almost always beneficial.
The same principal applies to practising science; the more scientists share their ideas the better the outcome is likely to be. Joseph Priestley made have regretted telling Antoine Lavoisier about his discovery of “dephlogisticated air” but at least Lavoisier coined the sexier name oxygen.
When I worked in a lab – a long time ago – I learned a great deal from watching and talking to my colleagues – theoretical ideas, tips of technique, and so on – and I am convinced that the more you share the more you gain.
Adam Hart-Davis is a freelance writer and broadcaster – former presenter on television of Local Heroes, Tomorrow’s World, What the Romans (and others) did for Us, How London was Built, and many others. He has collected various awards for both television and radio, as well as two medals and 14 honorary doctorates. He has read several books, and written about 30. He spends a lot of time hacking at green wood, making chairs, tables, egg cups, bowls, and spoons.
A chance to find your dream job?
More and more, we conduct our lives online. From shopping to socialising, there’s nary an activity that hasn’t been supplemented or supplanted by the electronic ether, and the internet is never far from our fingers.
Shortcuts through cyberspace make the world smaller, but some lament that this comes at the expense of conventional contact and communication, and in fact pushes us further apart.
Online job searching is perhaps one of the more innocuous, indeed welcome, invasions of life lived remotely. Most job hunts are likely to begin with offering up a few key strokes to a database and end with a fingers-crossed click to dispatch a payload of personal data. Your first encounter of the third kind with an alien employer will probably be a handshake on the day of your interview, should your digital demeanour persuade them to pause upon your CV.
But for all its convenience, we should be wary that our reliance on technology doesn’t diminish the personal interactions that are still so essential. We spend so much of our lives in our workplaces, our colleagues and customers see more of us than our families. But unlike families, you actually get to choose your job. Spending some time getting to know your could-be employer helps both of you know if the relationship will work. It has costs: time, effort and possibly money, but that’s a small price to pay to give yourself the best chance of landing the job you want.
At the end of November, we’ll be running our first careers fair, at Burlington House in London. An impressive selection of chemistry employers – big and small, global and local – representing all aspects of the chemistry industry will be there, and looking to recruit. The Royal Society of Chemistry’s careers advisors will also be on hand to offer their assistance. In one day, you can meet over 20 potential employers, speak to the people that work there, and learn what they do just by turning up and saying hello. And they get to meet you – a person, not a pdf.
‘The history of science, more than of any other activity, shows men and women of every nation contributing to the common pool of organised knowledge and providing the means for enhancing human welfare.’ – Ronald Nyholm, editorial in Education in Chemistry, vol. 1, issue 1.
50 years ago, the Royal Institute of Chemistry (RIC) announced a new quarterly magazine, with the aim of ‘improving the teaching of chemistry at all levels’. The RIC no longer exists (having merged with the Society for Analytical Chemistry and the Chemical and Faraday Societies to form the Royal Society of Chemistry) but the publication, Education in Chemistry or EiC, is still around to celebrate its golden anniversary.
Having spent the year in dusty archive rooms researching the history of the magazine, editor Karen J Ogilvie and assistant editor David Sait have emerged, blinking, back into the daylight, determined to celebrate in style. As well as planning a calendar of celebration events for those involved in the magazine, they’ve been busy rethinking their online home, and the refreshed and redesigned website launched on 12 November.
EiC still lives up to its original intentions, as a way of sharing ideas and discussion on the teaching of chemistry, as well as keeping educators up to date with news from the frontline of chemical research. Recent articles place the history of drug development alongside innovations in virtual experiment software that could enhance or replace traditional laboratory-based practical work. This balance fits perfectly with the aim set out by Ronald Nyholm in the editorial of the very first issue:
‘[Our task] is to present modern chemistry in ways that will stimulate teachers at various levels to improve their own presentation of the subject, and to record the experiences of those who have tried out new methods and new approaches.’
But sticking to their original principles doesn’t mean resisting change. EiC has developed over the years alongside the teaching profession, keeping pace with technology, policy and an ever-changing curriculum. They continue to support chemistry teachers both inside and outside the classroom, and with the announcement of a new strand looking at continuing professional development, hope to encourage chemistry teaching as a lifelong career.
So happy birthday EiC!
We’re running a series of guest posts from the judges of the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition. In this, the first of the series, we hear from Sam Tang, public awareness scientist at the University of Nottingham.
The phrase ‘openness in science’ offers a variety of meanings. For me, as a science communicator, I feel openness describes how we communicate science to the public and the media.
I like to think we’ve come a long way in making science more open and accessible, and over the last nine years, I’ve seen science communication evolve from being a fringe activity that only a handful of volunteers gave their time to do (and, dare I say it, were looked down upon for partaking), to becoming an embedded activity in universities across the UK. Type ‘science communication’ into Google and it becomes apparent that it is now a discipline in its own right: a wealth of pages appear, from masters courses to conferences, jobs in the field, even a Wikipedia entry.
I tried the same web search for the arts and the humanities and there simply aren’t the equivalent qualifications or jobs available for these disciplines. Does this make science more open, or have we had to create such roles precisely because of public perceptions, be they real or imagined, of science being secretive or incomprehensible?
Openness also applies to interactions between us scientists, whether working in the same or different subjects. I recently spoke to a professor in mechanical engineering whose group is developing new methods and materials in 3D printing. He has started collaborations with pharmacists, polymer chemists and even psychologists. This sharing and collaboration comes about because each group strives to advance their respective fields, and in order to do so they have to look beyond their own research areas. ‘Interdisciplinary’ and ‘innovation’ are funding buzzwords but could they actually be a driving force for openness in the scientific community?
Openness is relevant for so much of science, I think I can see why it was chosen for the competition.
Samantha Tang occupies an unusual position in UK science communication, as a public awareness scientist at the University of Nottingham. Her role involves explaining chemistry in an informal, accessible and entertaining manner to a wide range of audiences, through varying mediums – including the University’s Periodic Table of Videos. She is also a former Chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s East Midlands section (2007-2013).
Guest post by Emily James
On Wednesday 30th October, I attended the CaSE debate, hosted at the Royal Society. David Willetts (minister for universities and science), Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge) and the freshly-appointed Liam Byrne (shadow minister for universities, science and skills) sat in good position to debate the future direction of science and engineering in the UK. The BBC’s Pallab Ghosh led the discussion, with pre-selected questions from the audience.
I couldn’t help but notice that despite the name of the event, there was a slight lack of hearty debate. My own desires for things to get a bit heated were met with held tongues – I blame the run up to the 2015 general election. However, perhaps consensus is not such a bad thing if you consider the cross-party agreements made on policies that act favourably on STEM education and industry.
Indeed, the underlying topic that stood out for me was the coverage of STEM subjects in education. All three MPs agreed that to close the STEM skills gap, the excitement of science should start in school. Huppert wants subject specialists in schools, who convey that ‘science is fun, not just a list of facts’. Byrne is not only in support of improving the careers service to draw STEM students into the workforce, but also a fan of the technical baccalaureate and more students becoming registered science technicians. Hands-on practical science was also a theme Willetts rode on, stating that to meet the supply for well-trained scientists we need to change the perception of British scientists being exceptionally paper educated, to that of using this knowledge to get our hands dirty.
— CaSE (@sciencecampaign) October 30, 2013
Speaking of training, Willetts is disappointed in the number of part time students. I’m disappointed that he didn’t mention anything about part time postgraduate study, specifically support for those returning from work to academia. As a scientist who is doing just this, I did indeed consider studying for my PhD part-time. However after weighing up the options, a seven-year PhD, with the combined stress of two jobs didn’t really appeal to me. Besides, the engineering and physical sciences research council (EPSRC) funding website for part-time studentships not part of a doctoral training centre is rather vague. Huppert came out on top for me here, advocating the Open University and that anyone should be able to re-train at any point in your life.
As the conversation predictably turned to student loans, Huppert said he wanted to prioritise bursaries for living expenses and scrap tuition fees. However, he admitted he had no idea where the money was going to be sourced from when Willetts put forward that a reduction in university fees ultimately means cuts in science – a position Willetts is against. Further to this, Huppert’s solution to the advancement of blue-skies research is to convince people to do science for the love, not just the money; study what you’re interested in and don’t just focus on the financial return. This could work, if you also love to sleep on your lab floor because your research doesn’t pay the bills at home. If everyone bought into this thinking, we might even save the housing crisis!
Willetts: we need to reward scientists for working collaboratively – papers & promotions #casedebate
— Science Grrl (@Science_Grrl) October 30, 2013
The panel also broached a very hot topic, and one of my areas of interest: diversity in STEM. Ghosh opened the topic with a terrifying fact that half of the state schools in the UK don’t have a single girl studying A-level Physics. Willetts followed this up with another shocking statistic: that only a quarter of female A* physics GCSE students carry the subject onto A-level, which is half the number of boys that do. Biology represents a very different picture, with 60% of girls going on to study it at A-level.
So what’s happening early on in the lives of our future female scientists? Willetts had a thought-provoking theory: girls are aspiring to become doctors of medicine. To do this they study the biological sciences, but then if they don’t get through the fiercely competitive application process to study medicine, they can only use these subjects to choose an alternative career path. Unfortunately if they didn’t study physics at A-level, they can’t convert back to it at degree level to become engineers or physicists. Basically we are sending girls up a blind alley – they specialise too early. I agree with this, but I had to drop physics at A-level due to a timetabling issue – I couldn’t take five A-levels.
Fortunately the panel were in agreement on the obvious solution is to improve the careers service. Byrne also added his solution to focus on role-models in the classroom, getting female graduates back into schools to inspire the next generation – a comment I heartily agree with as I had a role-model myself: a female chemistry teacher with a PhD (in a state school!). I was actually quite impressed by Byrne’s contribution to the whole discussion, despite only being in the position for 3 weeks and his initial comment on ‘only being here for enthusiasm and excitement’.
Not just women is STEM, also ethnic and economic backgrounds – lots of barrier issues to address. Huppert citing good campaigns #casedebate
— Dr Marianne (@noodlemaz) October 30, 2013
Huppert rounded off the discussion by (finally) pointing out the irony of the panel’s diversity. Although comic, it does rile to see three white, middle-aged men discussing diversity related issues, as is often the case. As Huppert put it, we need to break down stereotypes; it’s not just about women, but also people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
Although armed with big ideas, the panel offered no advice on what voters can do to go about this. The panel wants an unbiased STEM education that starts early on. In my opinion, this needs to begin at home. The public need to understand and confront gender specific ideas. At least, buy your kids science toys regardless of how they are branded. Speak out against those who say that STEM is ‘just for boys’ and show your children diverse role models. Anyone can be a scientist; it’s up to you to prove to the next generation that they can too.
You can watch a video of the debate below. I recommend a viewing, especially for the discussion on ring-fencing science funds and to see Willetts’s genuine surprise that anyone had actually read his BIS innovation and research strategy paper – let alone Byrne!
Emily is on the Royal Society of Chemistry graduate scheme and currently works in the Chemistry World team. She feels strongly about challenging the public’s perception of science and what it takes to be a scientist. A medicinal chemistry graduate, Emily will return to academia in 2014 to begin life as a PhD student. No doubt she will continue to talk about science in her daily life and campaign for @RSC_Diversity.
Guest post by Dr. Elisa Meschini
Anyone who has ever worked in a chemistry lab will be all too familiar with the “trials and tribulations” that Unsworth and Taylor so vividly describe in this review article, in which they recount their journey towards the total synthesis of the natural product ‘upenamide.
‘Upenamide is a fascinating molecule with many challenging structural features, which has raised considerable interest from the synthetic organic chemistry community. It contains a 20-membered macrocyclic ring and 8 stereogenic centres (including two unusual N,O-acetals). Biosynthetically, ‘upenamide is thought to derive from a similar synthetic pathway to that of another marine alkaloid, manzamine. ‘Upenamide is a promising anticancer target, although biological studies against cancer cell lines necessitate the total synthesis of the natural product.
At the start of my PhD in anticancer drug discovery, I found myself expressing my frustration to one of my advisors, Prof. Bernard Golding, about a reaction that was not proceeding according to plan. Prof. Golding assured me that if I kept working and stuck to my methods, the reaction would come through in the end. His career a shining example of this healthy and positive philosophy, he was of course right.
The field of total synthesis was officially inaugurated by Friedrich Wöhler’s synthesis of urea in 1828, which demonstrated that organic molecules can be produced from inorganic precursors (thereby disproving the existence of a so-called “vital force” in organic compounds. Since then, total synthesis has been engaging generation after generation of chemists in alternating bouts of frustration and elation. A marriage of rigorous science and sophisticated art, total synthesis has provided massive contributions to the development of science for the benefit of humanity.
In a notable example, after the cancer chemotherapy drug paclitaxel was first discovered in 1967 and its therapeutic properties were evaluated, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the United States was driving the pacific yew (from whose bark the natural product was initially sourced) to extinction in order to acquire enough material for clinical trials. It was organic synthesis that saved the day, when R.A. Holton first devised a semisynthetic route to paclitaxel in 1992. K.C. Nicolaou later reported the first total synthesis of taxol in 1994. Holton’s semisynthesis was the primary route for the sourcing of paclitaxel until an industrial process based on the fermentation of Taxus cell lines was developed in 2003.
From strychnine, quoted by R.B. Woodward as being ‘for its molecular size, (…) the most complex substance known’, to vitamin B12, to penicillin, the milestones set by dedicated synthetic organic chemists over the past two centuries have been many and breathtaking. It is impossible to overstate the difficulties faced, and the creativity and genius required to overcome them. By its very nature, as stated by Taylor and Unsworth in their review, this is a field where the frustrations are inevitable but the journey, however rich with obstacles, is as important as the destination.
When reading Unsworth and Taylor’s remarks in the Conclusions section of their review, one can feel the exasperation.
‘Unfortunately, the spectroscopic data for neither synthetic compound match those of the natural product, meaning that the true structure of the natural material remains uncertain. Given that a huge amount of effort by several research groups has gone into the synthesis of ‘upenamide, it is disappointing that we were not able to elucidate its structure through total synthesis, and its true structure remains a mystery.’
One can almost hear the sheet of paper bearing the latest spectrum being ripped from the printing machine in trepidation, then the exasperated sigh of anticlimax and perhaps a fist colliding with the desktop, causing the beaker containing the NMR tubes to be upended. We have all been there.
The history of the association between the Taylor group at York and ‘upenamide (a word deriving from the Hawaiian for fishing net or trap, a reference to both the natural product’s marine origins and unusual shape) goes back to 2004, when the synthesis of a model of ‘upenamide’s ABC ring system was first described. At the same time, a separate research group in France was working on a model DE ring system for the same molecule.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the ABC and DE ring systems were successfully coupled by a group in Pennsylvania. Still the total synthesis of the natural product was not complete, although the efforts towards ‘upenamide had by then resulted in the development of an array of excellent synthetic techniques, as the many synthetic challenges posed by ‘upenamide at each step of the synthesis had been met with several creative solutions. Finally, in 2012, the Taylor group managed to build upon these international pioneering studies and complete the synthesis of what had, by then, been accepted as the most likely proposed structure for the natural two diastereoisomers.
Unfortunately, (cue fist on desktop) as these two diastereoisomers were being investigated spectroscopically, it became clear that neither of them corresponded to the true structure of ‘upenamide. The two products were insoluble in the solvents that had been used to characterise ‘upenamide. Furthermore, the NMR data were considerably different from those of ‘upenamide.
There are many possible explanations for these discrepancies. Errors may have been committed either by the chemists who isolated the natural product, or by those attempting its synthesis. Some of the spectroscopic data along the way may have been misassigned. Unfortunately, ‘upenamide eludes as of yet all efforts to obtain an X-ray crystal structure and future studies will have to wait until the now-depleted stocks of the original natural product are replenished by further extraction from the Indonesian sponge Echinocalina sp.
Taylor and Unsworth have succeeded in conveying their enthusiasm at being part of such important endeavours, and this should serve as inspiration for the next generations of chemists that the discipline is both attractive and important, and when pursued with optimism it never fails to bring immeasurable benefits to society.
Elisa is a Publishing Editor at the Royal Society of Chemistry, where she works on synthetic organic and medicinal journals such as OBC and MedChemComm. She previously completed a PhD in anticancer drug development at the Newcastle Cancer Centre. Elisa is a keen follower of the latest developments in synthetic organic and medicinal chemistry and the Woodward paper on strychnine was one of her first undergraduate assignments.
Does flushing condoms down the toilet pose a risk to aquatic ecosystems? An initial study published in Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts suggests that they don’t.
Filters at wastewater treatment plants are not fail-safe when it comes to removing condoms. Materials degrade en-route so smaller particles can sneak through filters and flooding can result in effluent bypassing treatment procedures completely.
— Condom derivative concentrations – Ouse and Derwent catchment
To investigate the scale of the problem, researchers in the UK initiated an anonymous survey quizzing people about how often they flushed condoms down the toilet. The survey, which is part of a wider study that is trying to understand the environmental impact of polymer-based materials and their degradation products, discovered that almost 3% of condoms bought were consigned to the sewers.
Survey data, along with information on screening efficiencies at sewage treatment plants, were put into a computer model of a river basin and its catchment area. This model estimated the amount of condom-derived material that should be present in environmental water. Condoms were then left to degrade in a simulated natural environment to reflect the quantity estimated to be present in environmental water. The resulting degradation mixture was sampled and used in ecotoxicity studies with the freshwater organisms, Daphnia magna and Chironomus riparius. Luckily for both species, the studies showed that the break-down products of condoms had no toxic effect in the concentrations predicted by the models.
Good news…I think? That’s not to say you should feel free to flush your condoms willy-nilly. Condoms, sanitary products and food waste such as oils cause major problems for waste water treatment (I’m thinking of the Delhi Commonwealth games in 2010), and we still need to understand how other species may fare. Bioaccumulation in the river food chain could also increase these products to physiologically relevant concentrations, as has been seen with other plastic derived compounds. If fish populations are hit hard enough by pollution, anglers may have to turn to alternatives and attempt to land the fabled two pound black ribbed nobbler.
It’s that time of year again – next week, the winners of this year’s round of Nobel prizes are due to be announced. We’re certainly getting pretty excited at Chemistry World HQ and, as usual, the predictions have been flying around.
For physics, the big question isn’t so much ‘what?’ as ‘who?’ will take home the prize this year. Most people seem to agree that the discovery of the Higgs boson is the strongest contender. But as there are a handful of theorists and experimental teams who were involved in its discovery – and a maximum of three can share the prize – who will be deemed worthy of the physics Nobel is anyone’s guess.
But what about the chemistry prize? As usual, Thomson Reuters have generated their list of predictions using most cited topics and authors. They do this every year and claim to have correctly predicted more Nobel prize winners than anyone else, having accurately forecast 27 winners over the last 11 years. I’m not so sure they’ll be right about the chemistry prize this time around though, as some of the innovations they’ve picked seem a little too recent. Alongside modular click chemistry and the Ames test for mutagenicity, they highlight DNA nanotechnology as a potential winner, and named none other than this year’s CW entrepreneur of the year Chad Mirkin as one of the leaders in this field. While the range of potential applications of DNA nanotech is huge, I think it’s still a little too early for this to be Nobel-worthy…but you never know!
A quick sweep of the chemistry blogosphere yields a more extensive list. Ashutosh Jogalekar at the Curious Wavefunction has highlighted several research areas deserving of the prize, and named the inventors of the lithium ion battery among his top picks. He suggests that as the prize was awarded to biochemists last year, it is perhaps more likely to recognise a straight chemistry field this time. He may well be right.
Ultimately it’s a wait-and-see job, and in the meantime there are plenty of ways to celebrate the chemistry Nobel countdown. Our features editor Neil will be joining Carmen Drahl and Lauren Wolf from C&EN and Chembark’s Paul Bracher for a Google+ Hangout (think multiway skype chat) to discuss the potential front runners tomorrow at 8pm UK time – tune in and join the discussion here. You can also watch Neil’s video interview with 2011 chemistry Nobel Dan Shechtman on the key ingredients for prizewinning success below. And of course, we’ll be sure to bring you the very latest next week when the winners are announced.
UPDATE: In something of a surprise decision, the 2013 Nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to Martin Karplus of Harvard University, US, Michael Levitt of Stanford University, US, and Arieh Warshel of the University of Southern California, US, for ‘the development of multi-scale models for complex chemical systems’. Karplus alone featured in Jogalekar’s predictions, but the entire field of computational chemistry doesn’t seem to have occurred to the prediction wizards at Thomson Reuters. You can read more about the decision and their work here.
Experienced trackers know exactly which species of animals are around from looking at their poo. But to do that, they need to get their hands on a good quality stool. Conditions aren’t always favourable for faecal preservation – rain, insect or other animal activity, health and diet of the animal can all conspire to make traditional identification tricky if not impossible.
— The face of a mountain lion. Released by Digital Art here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitalart/ under CC-BY licence
This can be a real problem when tracking rare, elusive or endangered species, such as mountain lions. To understand population dynamics and evaluate conservation projects, we need to know how many animals are in which locations. Where the animals are too few and far between to use mark-release-recapture techniques, ecologists are increasingly turning to chemistry for new identification tools.
Genetic analysis seems like the obvious way to go. By analysing DNA found in dung, one can identify not just the species, but the individual animal. This sort of analysis has been demonstrated in a number of species and is now involved several conservation projects. For just £50 +P&P, you can send a sample off to a company in Warwickshire, who can identify most British mammalian species – very useful for determining what species of bat is nesting in your loft, or if you’re not sure whether a fox or a pine marten has been using your privet as a privy.
However, DNA has its problems, especially in degraded samples. With carnivores, predator and prey DNA can become muddled. The DNA itself is also broken down over time, and even simple microsatellite analysis – similar to the DNA profiling methods used by the police – requires amplification equipment, access to restriction enzymes etc that may be beyond the capabilities of remote field stations. So other biomarkers that can act as a species-specific signature are needed.
Bile acids may be the answer. According to a new paper in Analytical Methods, bile acids are ‘very stable compounds’ that ‘remain chemically unmodified at extreme environmental conditions’ and due to differences in physiology, metabolism and gut bacteria, show marked differences between different species.
The idea of using bile acid composition and concentration as a marker for species is not new. Previous research has identified species from their bile acid profile using thin-layer chromatography, for example. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) has been used to identify medically relevant bile salts in human excreta, but as these salts are complex and non-volatile, with multiple ionisable functional groups, this requires a number of steps to achieve and so is not suited to ecological studies.
This new paper, from Udaya Nasini and colleagues at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, US, proposes using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), and ionising the samples using electrospray ionisation. This has the advantage of being quick and simple (basically, the samples are mixed with methanol, stirred then filtered), and proved to be very reproducible, even with three-month-old frozen turds.
Using their technique, they evaluated the bile acid profiles of a number of wild animals, including mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, coyote, fox and puma, noting significant differences between them. To further test their methods, they received ‘blinded’ samples from Little Rock Zoo, and correctly identified them.
They conclude with the usual further research is needed comments, and clearly their selection of species is based on the stools they might find nearby, but for mountain lions at least, they do say that ‘this method appears to be better and more reliable than those available or in use at present’. With the rapid reduction in both size and cost of MS devices, this technique could become a standard trick for coprophilic ecologists world over.
There’s no doubt that the evolution of drug-resistant antibacterial is a worrying trend. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) may have taken most of the headlines, but while we’ve been discussing how best to wash our hands in hospital wards, other, more insidious resistant bacteria have come to the fore.
In March, Sally Davies, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer described antimicrobial resistance as posing a ‘catastrophic threat’. And recently, Tom Frieden, Director of the US Centres of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warned ‘If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era … and for some patients and for some microbes, we are already there.’
This month saw the publication of a two key reports: the UK five year antimicrobial resistance strategy 2013 to 2018 published by the Department of Health and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and the CDC tome Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013. In a little over 140 pages between them they scan the landscape, identifying and, for the first time, classifying the threats posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Being in the UK, my understanding of antibiotic resistance has been based mainly on the British narrative – the rise of MRSA in hospitals (despite being first identified in the 1960s), over-hyped panic headlines about ‘superbugs’, followed by the discovery of ‘hospital acquired’ MRSA in the community. Simultaneously, the newspapers have charted the rise in cases of clostridium difficile (c. dif.) infection which, although not particularly resistant to drugs, are a result of antibiotic use (or arguably overuse). As a science journalist, I’ve been more concerned about the rise of drug resistant tuberculosis. The cases are relatively rare, so there has been little in the mainstream press, but we in the UK are only a generation or two away from a time when TB was rife, and these disturbing cases are now on the rise.
Bacteria are indifferent to geopolitical boundaries, a fact which the UK report acknowledges by calling for greater collaboration with the World Health Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health. Looking at the situation in the US, the report states that over 2 million people are infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria each year, leading to over 23,000 deaths. A further 250,000 acquire an infection of c. dif., and more than 14,000 of those don’t survive. The problem is not limited to the US and UK, of course – research shows resistance all over the world.
Both reports are available for free online, though the CDC’s seems better targeted at a public audience. It focusses just on concerns around bacteria (well, okay, they slip one fungus in too). Resistant viruses and parasites are out of their scope for now, though undoubtedly there will be shared lessons. In the report, the CDC stratifies bacteria by how significant the thread is perceived to be.
‘Urgent’ threats (defined as ‘high-consequence … threats because of significant risks identified across several criteria’) include the aforementioned c. dif, but also carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) and drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae. CREs are a particular concern to people receiving hospital treatment – catheters and ventilators are both risk factors for infection. Neisseria gonorrhoeae, as the name suggests, is the organism behind the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhoea.
The next category represents the ‘serious’ threats, and contains a raft of familiar infections: pseudomonas, salmonella, shigella, MRSA and TB. Threats were categorised as ‘serious’ if there was evidence of a decline in incidence, or if other therapeutic agents were available.
Finally, vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA), erythromycin-resistant Streptococcus Group A and clindamycin-resistant Streptococcus Group B were categorised as ‘concerning’: ‘bacteria for which the threat of antibiotic resistance is low, and/or there are multiple therapeutic options for resistant infections.’
The stratification may give us a robust guide to our priorities, but cannot in itself tell us what we need to do. The report (as is often the case) calls for more research, but also sets out four core actions:
- Avoiding infection in people and animals (as antibiotic use in animals also fosters resistance)
- Tracking and collecting better data
- Improving antibiotic stewardship and education around the prescription of antibiotics
- Developing new drugs and diagnostic techniques
The UK report sets its targets a bit wider, including resistance to antivirals and antifungals. The aims and objectives set out are broadly similar to those of the CDC, but with more specific commitments, including the earmarking of up to £4 million to set up a new, dedicated, National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Health Protection Research Unit. This is promising, but doesn’t make up for the fact that the UK underinvests in antimicrobial resistance research, according to a study in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, also published this month.
Research in the chemical sciences will be key to achieving these aims. A quick search on the Chemistry World website can give us a snapshot of the amount and breadth of work taking place:
- Ben Feringa’s recently published work on ‘switchable’ antibiotics could develop a class of drug that is only active while in the patient
- A colourimetric array developed in Taiwan can help to identify bacteria quickly, cutting the need for broad-spectrum antibiotics
- Recent work in Oxford could lead to drugs that weaken bacterial defences, reducing the need for long courses of antibiotic treatment
- A range of compounds, including a peptide from wasp venom, are being investigated with aim to keep catheters and medical devices sterile
There are further bright lights on the horizon. Only very recently has it become a realistic proposition that we will be able to sequence the genome of the bacteria causing an infection in emergency rooms and local GPs. The technology and the software needed to understand the results have been getting cheaper and easier to use every year. Soon every infection will be able to be sequenced, providing enormous amounts of information on the spread, evolution and vulnerabilities of the bacteria involved.
Hopefully, today’s research and that funded and supported by the new strategy will keep us from the ‘post-antibiotic era’ Frieden predicts – but only if we act globally to get antimicrobial resistance under control.
Want to know more?
The Royal Society of Chemistry is hosting a panel discussion entitled ‘Beating the Superbugs: avoiding an antibiotic apocalypse’ in London on the 18th November – find out how you can join in here: http://rsc.li/superbugs
Sometimes people like to moan that chemistry doesn’t get enough media attention, but we have news to counter this claim. Our colleagues have let us know that this weekend the BBC World Service will be broadcasting an episode of The Forum, which was recorded last week at the RSC’s ISACS12 conference, Challenges in Chemical Renewable Energy.
Quentin Cooper hosts the programme with Daniel Nocera of Harvard University, Clare Grey of the University of Cambridge, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz of the State University of Campinas and Jim Watson of the UK Energy Research Council. The panel will discuss the work in their areas of expertise and future challenges for renewable energy as a whole. If you want to listen in, the programme will be broadcast at 23.06 GMT on Saturday 14September, 10.06 GMT on Sunday 15 September and 2.06 GMT on Monday 16 September and you can find out when this is in your local time at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmeguide/.
It will also be available to listen on the iPlayer shortly after the broadcasts have finished at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01g94yj. Make sure to let us know what you think.
Today, (8th September 2013) was the first day of formal science events at ACS Fall, the American Chemical Society’s annual autumnal conference. This year the host city is Indianapolis, and Emma Stoye and I have come along to cover the action. From now until the 12th, I should expect to see more chemistry in the news than is normal, as the press team here are working hard to get stories from the conference into the headlines.
So it may sound a little odd that I decided to board a shuttle bus away from the conference centre, away from the press room with its free coffee and bagels, and away from room after room of scientific discussions where researchers share ideas and chew over the new results that will go on to generate headlines that we’ll publish in Chemistry World. It may almost sound like dereliction of duty when I tell you that the bus was headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500. But while the conference centre and nearby downtown hotels were hosting the scientific programme, the speedway was taken over by Celebrate Science Indiana, an annual event that ‘demonstrates the importance of studying science and the joy of discovery, the economic value of science, and its significance to society’.
Planned to coincide with the sudden influx of chemists to the city, this year’s Celebrate Science Indiana was essentially a one-day science festival. Flash-bang demos and classic extract-DNA-from-fruit type hands-on events jostled for attention amongst exhibitions of solar powered vehicles and high-performance tyres. Sarah Fisher, a former Indy 500 driver who became the first woman ever to take the podium back in 2000, hosted a Q&A session on the science of speedway racing, discussing the G-forces involved, the need for the right tyre design and explaining how a turbo charged engine works. In all, it was a great mix, engaging all the family through a diverse programme, which even included the opportunity for adults to be a passenger in a 100mph trip around the track.
One thing that really struck me was a demo I’d never seen at this sort of event before – a demo so simple and unassuming that it wouldn’t occur to many to include it. But there it was – on a table surrounded by rapt children was a man doing a titration. If any of the encircling children go on to study chemistry, they’ll have to do hundreds of these before they even collect an undergraduate degree, but in this context it was fascinating to them – a brand new way of answering questions about the world around them, using coloured liquids and esoteric bits of glassware. One of the presenters, whose name I didn’t catch before he vanished back into a crowd of kids, said ‘if even one of these children go on to study science and work as a scientist, we’ll have done our job today.’
Back at the conference centre, it seems the ACS couldn’t resist the opportunity to work the speedway into its scientific programme. They’ve devoted two sessions to the chemistry of racing, focussing on the development of green racing fuels, the advances in battery chemistry that will power future electric races and even the materials chemistry of asphalt. (It may surprise you to hear that atomic force microscopy, gel permeation chromatography and thermal gravimetric analysis have all been applied to study the surface of a race track.)
Many conferences have an ‘…in the community’ element, intended to reach out beyond the delegates and engage the lay public. But by combining their event with the speedway, which is culturally and historically so important to Indianapolis, the combined forces of the ACS and Celebrate Science Indiana managed something quite extraordinary. An enjoyable, educational and genuinely exciting day.
Some more pictures from Celebrate Science Indiana:
Guest post by Rhod Jenkins
What is the holy grail of renewable energy production? I work with a lot of chemists and engineers who research the area of chemical renewable energy, and this is one debate we tend to have more than any other. After a lot of raised voices, wagged fingers and offences taken, we tend to conclude that there is no one solution to the problem, but rather it’ll be a mixture of all of them. This is partially due to the massive scale of the energy problem, but it also comes down to the applicability of the technology. What might work for one application may be completely inappropriate for another.
Take transport, for instance. We all rely heavily on powered transport, and in the UK it accounts for over a third of our energy consumption. For this specific application the energy source needs to be carried on-vehicle (except in very rare electric trams), and at the moment this comes in the handy form of liquid fossil fuel. But what are our other options? Actually, there’s quite a few and they come generally under two categories. We can either replace the fuel itself, keeping the current engine technology and infrastructure, or we can develop new transport technology which would require new infrastructure.
There are a few different renewable liquid fuel technologies that can act as drop-in fuels, some of which are in use today. Most well-known are biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, which are used in blends in both the EU and the US, but they are not without problems. Other than the fact they’re derived from food resources, they both contain oxygen which reduces the amount of energy you can get out of the same amount of material, known as the energy density (by around a third for ethanol and 10-12% for biodiesel).[1, 2] The presence of oxygen also increases their reactivity. Ethanol can be corrosive to the engine and solubilise water from the atmosphere, whilst biodiesel can oxidatively degrade, increasing its viscosity and ultimately producing corrosive compounds.
To try and tackle these problems, research is being carried out to make pure hydrocarbons from biomass, such as thermochemical conversion to ’bio-oil’ which can be refined in the same way as crude oil, or by catalytically combining carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and hydrogen to make fuel-like compounds. This research is in the very early stages of development, however, and so far hasn’t shown to be economical using the relatively low amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (300-400 ppm).
So how about changing the vehicle technology? What about electric cars, such as the Nissan leaf? Electricity has the biggest potential for being the cleanest power source but only if we can harness solar, wind and tidal energy as a clean means of generation. The cars themselves are much more efficient than the internal combustion engine (by around a factor of 3), which means the costs per mile are much lower. The significant lack of moving parts when compared to a traditional engine means they generally need less maintenance, and as electric motors have relatively constant torque they exhibit a higher acceleration performance compared to a similarly-powered engine.
But of course, there are disadvantages. The ranges for most electric cars are much lower, the Nissan Leaf’s maximum range is about 120 miles, as opposed to a typical range of 300 miles for a fuel-powered car. Battery charge time is also an issue as anyone who owns a smartphone will attest to. Usual charging times for car batteries is several hours when using at-home chargers, though high-power public charge points do exist which have the ability to reach an 80% battery charge in around 30 minutes.
The weight of the batteries is another disadvantage. Pound for pound, the energy density of a Li-ion battery is much less than that of liquid fuel (0.7 MJ/kg as opposed to approximately 45 MJ/kg). Research is currently taking place to improve on battery technologies, such as lithium-air batteries which could demonstrate up to 15 times the energy density of current Li-ion batteries. There are also logistical problems concerning the materials found in electric vehicles. Rare elements such as neodymium and dysprosium are essential ingredients in some electric motors and there is a worry that, with a shift toward electric vehicles, the oil-dependent culture of today will change to a rare metal dependency, with 97% of rare earth metals being produced by China.
Apart from battery power, there is another possibility, the new kid on the block in terms of vehicle power – hydrogen. Hydrogen can either be combusted directly using a modified internal combustion engine, or used in a fuel cell to generate the electricity required to run a motor. Using hydrogen to power a car has lots of advantages. No carbon dioxide is produced, the efficiency is higher, and if hydrogen is produced from a sustainable method (such as water electrolysis using renewable electricity) no greenhouse gases are emitted in the entire cycle.
However, nothing can be perfect. Though hydrogen could be produced in renewable ways, it would be very expensive. Current predictions are that production from solar-powered water electrolysis would cost $6.50 per kilogram. Currently, hydrogen is produced in a much more cost-effective method, the steam reformation of fossil fuels (around $1-2 per kilogram), but those fuels are exactly what we are trying to replace! Another problem is the physical density of hydrogen. Though the energy per unit mass of hydrogen is much higher than petrol or diesel (123 MJ/kg versus 45 MJ/kg), hydrogen exists as a gas which greatly decreases its volumetric energy density. Even at the high pressures it’s currently being compressed to – a whopping 700 bar – the volumetric energy density it significantly lower than current liquid fuels (5 MJ/l versus 35 MJ/L). Building vessels capable of coping with these high pressures also increases the amount of material needed, and therefore the weight.
So many options for replacement fuels and fuel systems are under investigation, and each has their supporters and their denigrators. But what about changing the transport technology itself?
There are other alternative technologies, those of much more remarkable design, which could be feasible in public, rather than personal, transport. Wireless charging of electric buses in South Korea has recently been developed, made possible due to their pre-determined routes. Magnetic levitation, or ’Maglev’, trains run on electricity and the levitation reduces the need for traction and friction, therefore increasing efficiency. This technology can be further extended to evacuated tubes, or ’vactrains’, which greatly reduce air-resistance, improving efficiency further. One example of this is ’Hyperloop’, a concept proposed by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, who claims it could reach speeds of up to 760mph and would enable travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco (a distance of 360 miles) in 35 minutes.
In terms of personal travel, however, there’s a significant argument for keeping the current engine technology and infrastructure. After all, we’ve spent over a century perfecting the extraction of work from the combustion of liquid fuels, and the longevity of vehicles is ever-increasing. Therefore, in the short to medium term we need a replacement renewable liquid fuel. In the long-term, however, I expect to see many different transport technologies being developed and improved upon. Personally, I’m still looking forward to the hover skateboard from “Back to the Future II”, but that’s probably just me.
Rhod Jenkins is a PhD student within the Centre of Sustainable Chemical Technologies as the University of Bath. His PhD is in the area of biofuels from microbes and waste resources.
1. Regalbuto, J.R., Cellulosic Biofuels—Got Gasoline? Science, 2009. 325(5942): p. 822-824.
2. Knothe, G., J.H.V. Gerpen, and J. Krahl, The biodiesel handbook. 2005: AOCS Press.
3. Clean transport, Urban transport. 2012 06/09/2013; Available from: http://ec.europa.eu/transport/themes/urban/vehicles/road/electric_en.htm.
4. Crowe, P. European-Specific Nissan Leaf To Be Unveiled In Geneva. 2013 06/09/2012; Available from: http://www.hybridcars.com/european-specific-nissan-leaf-to-be-unveiled-in-geneva/.
5. Ngo, C. and J. Natowitz, Our Energy Future: Resources, Alternatives and the Environment. 2012: Wiley.
6. Daniel, C. and J.O. Besenhard, Handbook of Battery Materials. 2013: Wiley.
7. POSTnote – Rare Earth Metals. 2011, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology: London, UK.
8. Whitwam, R. Artificial photosynthesis hits milestone in producing cheap, clean hydrogen from water. 2013; Available from: http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/164465-artificial-photosynthesis-hits-milestone-in-producing-cheap-clean-hydrogen-from-water.
9. Kelion, L. South Korean road wirelessly recharges OLEV buses. 2013; Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-23603751.
10. Hyperloop Alpha. 2013, SpaceX. http://www.spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/hyperloop_alpha-20130812.pdf
Yesterday evening, over dinner, my friend and I couldn’t help but overhear a man on another table espousing the benefits of cannabis. Over a tiramisu, he stressed how cannabis can cure all ills including cancer and Alzheimer’s (There is some pre-clinical evidence, for these claims, but not all of the literature agrees). What our pro-cannabis lobbyist failed to mention, however, is that the modern cannabis is increasingly ditching the health giving cannabinoids in favour of more and more of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
A new study from Australia has now backed up these results. Wendy Swift of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, and colleagues, used high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to analyse the cannabinoid profile of cannabis confiscated from users by the police. They found that the seized weed showed high levels of THC (at least 15% in about half of the samples) but negligible amounts of any of the therapeutically useful cannabinoids. Good for getting wasted perhaps but not for the benefits I heard promoted last night.
Digging down in the paper though, it seems there is a wide degree of variability in what is, it has to be admitted, quite a small sample (n = 206). The team say there was no difference between the profiles of outdoor and indoor grown weed overall but one of the samples contained a much higher proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) than all the others (6.5% when the mean was 0.14%). CBD has got a lot of attention for its anti-emetic and anticancer properties and I can’t help but wonder if somewhere in New South Wales there’s a supplier breeding high CBD weed for medicinal use. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me.
What we can say for now is that this study shows that cannabis is getting stronger and stronger. I wonder if that might change as more people, like my ‘friend’ from last night, become aware of the benefits of the other cannabinoids in cannabis, and the benefits beyond getting stoned.
It takes a certain type of person to take an idea and turn it into a successful company, and this is as true in the chemical sciences as in any other endeavour. In fact, a successful chemistry spin-out may be even more special – most inventions and new technologies don’t face the ‘valley of death’ that often separates the university lab bench from the commercial marketplace. The dragons of the den may understand the appeal of a well-branded and marketed jerk chicken sauce, but far fewer people have the insight to see the potential in chromatin modifying enzymes, haemolysin nanopores or spherical nucleic acids.
To celebrate those people who do see this potential (and whose vision so contagious they can get the support they need), we have the Chemistry World Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
The award recognises an individual’s contribution to the commercialisation of research, and so is open to anyone who has started or contributed to the growth of a start-up company. We’re looking for someone who has built a collection of intellectual property for the company and has developed new products that have reached the market recently or will do in the near future. The prize includes £4000, a trophy and a feature in Chemistry World.
Nominations are now open for the 2014 prize, so do you know anyone who would fit the bill? We’re interested in anyone who is helping to commercialise chemistry, so is there an enterprising individual you would like to see holding the trophy aloft? You can find all the details of how to nominate someone here. Nominations will remain open until January 15th 2014. Oh, and you can’t nominate yourself!
Best of luck to everyone who is nominated!
Did life come from Mars? Chemistry is in the news this week, with Steven Benner’s announcement that the science points to life beginning on Mars. Of the reports I’ve read, only the Smithsonian seems to have spoken to Benner, the rest seem to come straight out of the press release.
To give the executive summary: when organic compounds are given energy (such as from the Sun or geothermal sources), they can decompose into a gloopy mess that Benner calls tar. These organic compounds can be stabilised by addition of boron, and the newly stable compounds can be catalysed into more complex structures (including ribose) by molybdenum. Simple enough chemistry and nothing new, so where do the Martians come in?
If you read the abstract for the talk, which is at a geochemical conference, (the Goldschmidt conference in Florence), it becomes a bit more clear. The discussion surrounds mineralogy and early planetary environments. Essentially, what was the Earth like billions of years ago, and could that have supported the reactions that led to life? Herein lies the rub – Earth was anoxic and very, very wet at the time the chemistry of life is thought to have formed. All that water would keep the soluble boron too dispersed to stabilise the organics, and molybdenum wouldn’t have existed in the right oxidation state to catalyse the required reactions.
So what about our near neighbours? Benner argues that the Martian climate at the time would create ideal conditions to form carbohydrates, including the vitally important RNA.
Ultimately, we don’t know the exact chemistry that led to us being here, and I suspect there were more dead ends and false starts that we can even imagine. But, despite the odds, we’re here. For those who are trying to work out plausible pathways, the reaction conditions have to mirror what was possible at the time. For example, today we can make proteins through solid state synthesis but that’s certainly not how it would first have happened.
While we can’t yet make life from scratch, there are a lot of people working on it, some of whom have been able to make RNA’s building block without the boron and molybdenum compounds. If it turns out that life can only be made using borates and molybdenates, then Benner may well be right and life on Earth might have been seeded from a planet like Mars where those minerals would have been more common. But other plausible mechanisms might also be shown to work. The presence of oxygen on Mars may have allowed the existence of accessible molybdenum, but oxygen brings its own set of problems.
Geochemistry is key to suggesting plausible reaction conditions for the origin of life, whether here or elsewhere. Somewhere life did evolve from chemistry and perhaps one day we’ll be able to pinpoint where as well as how. But I’m not changing my planetary status just yet. All life on Earth might have Martian origins, maybe we come from an unknown environment and maybe we’re from the good old third rock from the Sun. Whether we get one or not, Mars is not yet the definitive answer.