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This week, The Alchemist heads for the stars via Chile's Atacama Desert, discovers that an old and putatively discredited theory of how we smell he discussed almost two decades ago might yet turn out to part of the olfactory process, and learns how an international team is attempting to navigate the chemical islands of stability. In the world of molecular electronics, crystalline caffeine looks like a flexible choice and a lateral discovery in cancer research might one day make nylon green. Finally, this week's award goes to a University of Minnesota chemist working on the molecular messengers produced by blood platelets.

ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, currently being built in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile will give scientists unprecedented instrumentation with which to explore the universe spectroscopically. "We're going to be able to do real chemical analysis of the gaseous 'nurseries' where new stars and planets are forming, unrestricted by many of the limitations we've had in the past," explains Anthony Remijan of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia. More than 170 molecules have been identified in space but ALMA's 66 high-precision antennas and advanced electronics will give astrochemists even better opportunities for molecule hunting and might even reveal more of the building blocks of life in space. Tests on the latest data already available from the fledgling ALMA equipment have validated observations against laboratory spectra.

New evidence suggests that a theory to explain our sense of smell posited in the 1990s might actually be valid and that the conventional view of olfaction is flawed. Findings by Klaus Schulten of the University of Illinois and colleagues support a theory due to Luca Turin that suggests that our sense of smell essentially works by analyzing the vibrational spectrum of smelly molecules as well as looking at the shape of the molecule. Most scientists in the field think that shape and surface characteristics are the only important olfactory cues whereas proponents of Turin's theory suggest that it is purely a matter of vibration. Schulten's team sit in a third camp that sees a combination of both factors at play based on their energetic calculations of the olfactory process.

Researchers at the University of Granada have formed part of a team searching for the location of the so-called Island of Stability of superheavy elements. Superheavy elements are postulated to lie beyond the shores of the known Periodic Table in a region where atomic masses are much higher than even the heaviest known heavy metals but physical factors conspire to make these superheavy elements more stable than known synthetic radioactive metals that exist only fleetingly in nuclear reactors and colliders. Along with colleagues in Germany and Russia, the team is searching for elements with atomic number above 103, that of lawrencium, using a quantum sensor developed at Granada. The research will search for elements that have a magic layer of protons or neutrons in the atomic nuclei thought to stabilize the hypothetical superheavy elements.

The bitter but stimulating alkaloid caffeine has revealed an intriguing property to chemists in India. Malla Reddy and Soumyajit Ghosh at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Kolkata were crystallizing caffeine with 4-chloro-3-nitrobenzoic acid when they stumbled on the fact that the process leads to a highly elastic material, yet crystalline, material that remains flexible even at temperatures as low as -100 Celsius. The discovery might open up a new way to make flexible electronic or micromechanical materials that exploit the highly ordered nature of crystals to improve energy and charge transfer properties but retain the flexibility of other substances.

Zachary Reitman and colleagues at Duke Cancer Institute were hoping to better understand how tumors grow and may have stumbled on a greener route to the polymer nylon along the way. The team primarily studies the genetic changes that cause healthy tissues to become cancerous with a view to developing better treatments. They spotted a mutation present in glioblastoma and other brain tumors that affects the enzyme isocitrate dehydrogenase and thinking somewhat laterally wondered whether a similar mutation in a closely related enzyme found in yeast and bacteria, homoisocitrate dehydrogenase, might be exploited to improve the fermentation process used to produce adipic acid, the building block of nylon. Preliminary tests show that the mutation might indeed lead to a greener route to adipic acid once scale-up of the biotransformation is made viable.

Popular Science magazine has recognized chemist Christy Haynes of the University of Minnesota as one of its “Brilliant 10”. The honor recognizes an elite group of young scientists whose research is expected to have a dramatic impact in their respective fields. Haynes and her team are the only researchers in the world who have been able to measure chemicals being released by individual blood platelets in real time. They successfully isolated individual platelets under the microscope and connected a tiny electrode that allows them to monitor the messenger molecules released by the platelet. She is also working towards developing "an immune system on a chip," that will open up research into allergies and asthma.