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US chemists have developed a new azide-based approach to creating N-heterocycles, a key component of dozens of pharmaceuticals, The Alchemist learns this week. On the physical side, a chilly gas of polar molecules with potential in quantum computing has been created in stable form by JILA scientists. A complex molecule in outer space could have the familiar smell of mothballs and hint at prebiotic chemistry. And, talking of bio, German scientists have found that they can use the microscopic threads of a Penicillium fungus to template the growth of gold nanostructures. Toxic chemicals are also once again in the news as thousands of babies in China fed formula milk adulterated with melamine suffer ill effects and several die. Finally, this year's Lasker Awards for work on microRNA, statins, and antibiotic resistance will be given on September 26.

Tom Driver and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago have devised a way to streamline the synthesis of N-heterocycles. This particular group of compounds is at the heart of almost all of the top 200 pharmaceuticals on the market so improving production efficiency and cutting down on waste could make the manufacturing process greener and cheaper. Their new approach is based on azides. "You need a particular type of starting point that has to be energetic, because the bonds we're trying to functionalize are quite stable," explains Driver, "Since the azide contains three nitrogen atoms after it gives up one the only byproduct in our reaction is nitrogen gas." He adds that this is an entirely novel approach. "We've demonstrated that what we're proposing works. Now, basically, we want to flesh it out in more detail and invent new reactions," he adds.

The first high-density gas of ultracold molecules, that are both stable and capable of strong interactions has been created by scientists at JILA, a joint institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder). The long-sought milestone in physics has potential applications in quantum computing, precision measurement and designer chemistry, the researchers say. "Ultracold polar molecules really represent now one of the hottest frontiers in physics," says NIST/JILA Fellow Jun Ye, an author of the paper. "They are potentially a new form of matter, a quantum gas with strong interactions that vary by direction and that you can control using external tools such as electric fields."

One of the most complex molecules yet seen in the interstellar medium has been discovered in a star formation region in the constellation Perseus, in the direction of the star Cernis 52. "We have detected the presence of the naphthalene cation in a cloud of interstellar matter located 700 light-years from the Earth", explains Susana Iglesias Groth of the Instituto Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) in the Spanish Canary Islands. "The spectral bands found in this constellation coincide with laboratory measurements of the naphthalene cation," she says. The detection of this molecule, a key ingredient in mothballs, suggests that a large number of the key components in prebiotic terrestrial chemistry could have been present in the interstellar matter from which the Solar System was formed.

German researchers have discovered that they can coat the thin fronds that grow from Penicillium and other fungi with nanoscopic particles of a noble metal. Alexander Eychmüller and Karl-Heinz Peacute;e of the Technical University in Dresden and the Max Planck Institute for the Chemical Physics of Solid Materials in Dresden, Germany, explain how using the fungal network of threads, the mycelium, could be used to template the formation of novel catalytic systems based on gold, or other noble metals. They found that fungal threads coated with 200 nm gold particles appear reddish brown, as does a solution of such gold nanoparticles, providing evidence that the nanoparticulate nature of the particles is maintained during growth rather than aggregation to form larger units taking place.

An organic compound usually used as a flame-retardant has been exploited in infant formula milk products in China with devastating results. Thousands of infants exposed to the toxic compound have suffered ill effects, including acute kidney failure, and at the time of writing three had died. The nitrogen-rich compound, melamine, was used illicitly to adulterate popular formula milk products and give a false high reading for protein content. The same compound, and related materials, including cyanuric acid, were at the heart of a pet-food scandal in the US in 2007 when many pets died through eating adulterated products.

Research in the fields of microRNA, statins, and antibiotic resistance have been rewarded with the Lasker Awards given by the Albert & Mary Lasker Foundation, at a ceremony to be held September 26 in New York City. Victor Ambros, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in Worcester, David Baulcombe, of the University of Cambridge, and Gary Ruvkun, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School share the Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research for their roles in the discovery of microRNAs. Akira Endo of Biopharm Research Laboratories, in Tokyo, receives the Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research for his discovery of mevastatin (compactin), the first statin drug. Stanford University School of Medicine microbiologist Stanley Falkow receives the biennial Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science for his pioneering work on bacterial antibiotic resistance. Each award carries a $300,000 honorarium and an inscribed statuette.