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The evolution of human chemistry is first under the Alchemist's spotlight this week, closely followed by a glowing report for mercury, the infamous liquid metal. Speaking of liquids, US researchers have developed an electrochemical process for converting carbon dioxide into fuel using an ionic liquid catalyst while the concept of a dust database might seem strange but could improve pollution studies and respiratory research. New crystallographic studies reveal that crystals need not be as solid as one might imagine, while we hear that the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry goes to Dan Shechtman for his discovery of symmetry-forbidden quasicrystals. The Alchemist sends his congratulations!

The sugar molecule sialic acid sits on the surface of animals cells acting as an unwitting liaison between healthy cells and invading pathogens. Now, researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have suggested that ancestors of the Homo genus lost the ability to biosynthesize one particular sialic acid, N-glycolylneuraminic acid or Neu5Gc. It is thought the change was linked to malaria infection, but whatever the cause the loss of Neu5Gc from those cells boosted disease protection in early hominids and ultimately allowed H. sapiens to emerge. The finding corroborates earlier research that suggested that the loss of Neu5Gc happened about two to three million years ago, the time when the likely ancestor of modern humans, H. ergaster/erectus, first appeared.

Researchers at the University of Utah hope to address mercury pollution in China where contaminated soil and water from coal burning is a growing problem. Ling Zang and his team have developed a faster and cheaper test for the toxic metal that precludes conventional laboratory preparation and analysis, which can take several weeks and cost hundreds of dollars. The new test exploits the specific binding between mercury and the DNA base thymine in a fluorescent test and can detect 0.2 parts per billion, a tenth the safety limit for drinking water.

Paul Kenis's team at the University of Illinois and startup Dioxide Materials have developed a novel ionic liquid catalyst that can convert carbon dioxide into formic acid or methanol, which can then be refined to ethanol or other fuels. The electrochemical flow reactor could be powered by solar, wind or another sustainable energy source to make it "carbon neutral". The use of an ionic liquid stabilizes the reaction intermediates, which reduces the electricity demands of the system making it more efficient.

A database of the physical chemistry of dust particles is being built by a team based at Ohio State University. The idea emerged serendipitously when the chemists were testing a new kind of sensor and discovered that dust was getting stuck inside. They realised that they could measure the composition of each dust particle and discovered 63 different types in their laboratory alone. Most of the particles were fragments of once living material from plants and animals as well as many particles comprising mostly quartz. Pollutants, fertilizers, and construction materials were present in only small amounts. The new database could aid in atmospheric studies as well as investigations into the effects of dust on respiratory problems in people. One might suggest that the research deserves either a Nobel or an IgNobel Prize, it's too early to say.

New crystallographic studies of a model coordination complex resembling the heme unit at the heart of the oxygen-carrying blood protein haemoglobin have revealed intriguing new properties of crystals that allow the atoms of closely packed molecules to move in ways comparable to the degrees of freedom seen in a liquid. The new study also points to a highly effective structural method for studying these and other molecules, according to George Richter-Addo and colleagues at the University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Dan Shechtman of Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, Israel, is the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals. Shechtman's discovery on morning of 8 April 1982 of crystalline solids that seemed to break the rules about periodicity and symmetry essentially overturned what scientists consider to be the definition of crystalline. Although the finding was very controversial and it took many years for Shechtman to convince mainstream science of the validity of his findings. Today, it is well recognised that symmetry-forbidden crystalline materials exist and researchers are beginning to exploit them in understanding the strengths and weakness of steel, for instance.