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The Alchemist observes evolution in the test tube in this week's issue and ponders the notion of a plastic pancreas. The vomeronasal organ of mice reveals new chemical secrets about rotten food and sickly individuals while high-power lasers go down the tubes. Microscopic molecular balls also caught the Alchemists eye while kudos goes to soft matter pioneer George Whitesides for his winning the inaugural Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences.




An artificial ecosystem in a test-tube has been likened to the molecular equivalent of the Galapagos Islands by scientists at the Scripps Research Institute. The molecules in the system evolve to exploit distinct ecological niches, the team says. Sarah Voytek and her colleagues say using molecules rather than living organisms offers a robust way to study the forces of evolution because molecules replicating every few minutes take mere days to evolve rather than millennia.





A polymer nanocapsule that releases insulin in response to changing glucose concentration has been developed by researchers in China. The concept might one day lead to a new approach to treating diabetes. Xingju Jin and Chaoxing Li of Nankai University in Tianjin used a copolymer with a mixture of phenyboronic acid and sugar-based side chains to form their nanoparticles. The self-assembling nanoparticles were loaded with insulin the release of which is controlled by the external concentration of glucose as it binds to the boronic acids and swells the particle, allowing the insulin to escape.





Signaling molecules known as pheromones are used by a wide range of organisms. In mammals, the the vomeronasal organ (VNO), a neuronally rich tubular organ in the base of the nasal septum is critical to detection. Now, European researchers have discovered a new receptor type in the neurons lining the VNO in mice. The discovery could help explain how animals are so adept at "sniffing out" spoiled foods and sickly individuals. The team showed that five members of the formyl peptide receptor-related gene family are expressed in the neurons lining the VNO and these are thought to be involved in regulating signal transduction pathways.





National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has announced a nano-coated power measurement device that should allow the U.S. military to calibrate its high-power laser systems used to defuse unexploded mines. The new meter was tested last week at a U.S. Air Force base and can monitor light emitted by 10-kilowatt (kW) laser systems that produce a beam a million times as intense as sunlight hitting the Earth. Key to success was a spray-on carbon nanotube coating that acts as a heat conductor hundreds of times more effective than conventional detector coatings.





Manfred Scheer, of the University of Regensburg, Germany, and colleagues have synthesised an organometallic analog of the famous soccerball molecule buckminsterfullerene using pentaphosphaferrocene and a carborane with the requisite fivefold symmetry. The product is more akin to the 80-carbon molecule rather than the [60]fullerene. The individual building blocks aggregate around the carborane to form a spherical supermolecule with fullerene-type geometry comprising twenty copper and sixty phosphorus atoms arranged into twelve rings.





Soft matter specialist George Whitesides of Harvard University is to be the first recipient of the Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences. The prize of $250,000 will be awarded every two years by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation in recognition of exceptional and original research in a selected area of chemistry that has advanced the field significantly. Whitesides' innovative research has had a sustained impact on chemistry and materials science making him one of the most highly cited living chemists in the world.