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The Alchemist Newsletter: September 26, 2007

by chemweb last modified 03-20-09 08:08 AM
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Not a subscriber? Join now.September 26, 2007
 

issue overview
grants and awards: Meta data prospecting wins award; To Boldly Go...
odor chemistry: Smelly Chemistry
biochem: Down to earth chemistry
analytical: A sense of atmosphere
optical: Stir it up, little dendrimer
physical: Positive step towards gamma laser

 

 


The winner this issue is the RSC's Project Prospect team, which received the 2007 ALPSP/Charlesworth Award for Publishing Innovation. In chemistry news, two smelly discoveries caught the nose of The Alchemist. The first points the way to a clearer understanding of how we smell, while the second explains the biochemistry of geosmin, the earthy smell of freshly turned soil and the particular bouquet after rain showers. We learn from GATech scientists how a sensor array can weigh up atmospheric or aqueous pollutants and why stirring a dendrimer solution could explain the origins of life. Finally, this week, researchers in California have taken the first steps towards building a gamma-ray laser using a quasi-molecule based on positronium.

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Meta data prospecting wins award

The UK's Royal Society of Chemistry has won the 2007 ALPSP/Charlesworth Award for Publishing Innovation for its semantic chemical web endeavor Project Prospect. The judges described Prospect as a "clear winner" for its efforts to incorporate useful chemical meta data into online chemistry journal articles in a "delightfully simple" manner. The benefits of Project Prospect to authors and readers are immediately obvious, the judges said. Prospect was created by RSC staff together with academic partners. The judging panel considered the originality and innovative qualities of each of the fifteen entries, together with their utility and benefit to their community and long term development prospects.

And the winner is

To Boldly Go...

The Molecular Frontiers Inquiry Prize, organized by Chalmers University in Sweden and Massachusetts Institute of Technology will inspire young people worldwide to ask big questions relevant to the molecular sciences including atomospheric science, biology, chemistry, medicine, nanobiotechnology, environmental science, climate change, marine science, and any other field involving molecules. The Award has two associated websites - www.moleclues.org and www.molecularfrontiers.org . This is the only prize in the world that will be awarded to young people who have previously had few opportunities to demonstrate their achievements. By providing a forum for profound new questions to be asked the Award organizers hope to stimulate new scientific research directions, scientific inquiries and technological innovations. The Award is open to all children up to sixteen years of age and the prize includes a Molecular Frontiers Medal, a certificate and the latest wireless mobile device and will be awarded to 20 girls and 20 boys each year. The final judging will be carried out by a panel of eight Nobel Laureates and other leading scientists during the Molecular Frontiers Summit in May each year at the Royal Swedish > Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden.

Moleclues and Molecular Frontiers

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Smelly Chemistry

Knowing the molecular structure of a substance can help predict whether we will find its smell heavenly or malodorous, according to new research from scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science and the University of California at Berkeley. Neurobiologist Noam Sobel of the Weizmann and colleagues suggest that their findings represent a first step in understanding the physical laws that underlie our perception of smell. The team analyzed a database of 160 different odors ranked by perfume and smell experts according to a set of 146 characteristics, including sweet, smoky, musty, etc. The team obtained a chart of pleasantness rating of the odors, ranging from sweet and floral to rancid and sickening. They could then correlate odor rank with molecular structure and predict with some flexibility whether a particular molecule will smell good or bad.

Pleasant Odors Can Be Predicted By Molecular Structure

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Down to earth chemistry

Geosmin is the smell of freshly turned earth. It is a bicyclic alcohol but until David Cane and his colleagues at Brown University figured it out, no one knew how nature makes this earthy molecule. "One nice thing about geosmin is that essentially everyone has smelled it, even if they did not know what it was or where it comes from," says Cane. He and graduate students Jiaoyang Jiang and Xiaofei have now used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to track the biosynthesis of geosmin by a bifunctional enzyme from the soil microbe Streptomyces coelicolor. Until now, such a two-part enzymatic process was not known in the biosynthesis of this type of terpene.

How Nature Makes Earth Aroma

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A sense of atmosphere

A tiny silicon disk can measure pollutants present in aqueous or gaseous environments, according to Oliver Brand and colleagues at Georgia Institute of Technology. One the disk is a cantilever microbalance that measures the mass of pollutant molecules. "When pollutant chemicals get adsorbed to the surface of the sensor, a frequency change of the vibrating microbalance provides a measure of the associated mass change," explains Brand. Such cantilever microbalances are not new. But, the team has now overcome the issue of how to dampen the cantilever's vibrations without loss of sensitivity, by designing a sensor array on to a silicon disk rather than using the conventional approach.

Sensor Array: New Microsensor Measures Volatile Organic Compounds in Water and Air On-site

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Stir it up, little dendrimer

Nanofibers of a zinc porphyrin dendrimer become aligned in a stirred liquid. Switching the direction of stirring reverses the optical activity of the solution. Takuzo Aida and colleagues at the University of Tokyo, Japan, suggest that this phenomenon may have a factor in the breaking of nature's symmetry in probiotic systems. The highly branched zinc-containing molecules aggregate in solution to form long nanofibers, the researchers explain. Left unstirred, the solution optically inactive, stirred clockwise induces optical activity in one direction and stirred counterclockwise switches the direction of the rotation of polarized light shining through the liquid. This phenomenon does not stem, as first thought, from the twisting of individual nanofibers. It is evidently caused by a special macroscopic spatial arrangement of the fibers within the sample cuvette.

Swirled to the Left or Right?

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Positive step towards gamma laser

Molecular positronium was a theoretical quasi-compound, imagined as forming when a pair of electrons and a pair of their antimatter counterparts hook up. Now, David Cassidy and Allen Mills of the University of California Riverside have synthesized this unique material, fleetingly, in the laboratory. The research points the way to ways to generate coherent gamma radiation - a gamma laser. The discovery might one day allow us to harness nuclear fusion for power generation. The researchers made the positronium molecules by firing intense bursts of positrons into a thin film of porous silica. Cassidy and Mills plan to work next on using a more intense positron source to generate a "Bose-Einstein condensate" of positronium -- a collection of positronium atoms that are in the same quantum state

Gamma Ray Lasers? Positronium Created In The Lab

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-- David Bradley, Science Journalist

 

 
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