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The Alchemist begins this week with news of a superbug beater, muscular hydrogels for drug delivery and atom efficient organic chemistry. In analytical news we go microscopic while a way to tag biology for Raman scattering studies is revealed. Finally, chemists at Queen's University Belfast are given a roll call for their work on decontamination of natural gas.

A new atom efficient chemical synthesis of alpha-arylated carbonyl derivatives has been developed by Nuno Maulide and colleagues at the University of Vienna. An early serendipitous discovery revealed an unusual transformation of amides and the addition of an activating agent revealed that a reactive intermediate can be formed that undergoes a simple rearrangement. The team took advantage of the process to carry out an efficient acid-catalysed redox-arylation that precludes the need for a costly transition metal catalyst, the team reports.

In situ infrared and X-ray high spatial-resolution microspectroscopy have been used for the first time to track multistep organic transformations in a flow microreactor in which gold nanoclusters act as the catalyst, according to US researchers. A team of scientists with the US Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California Berkeley have found a way to get a closer look inside a microreactor for the first time and can observe a catalytic reaction from start to finish at high resolution. The results have the potential for improving our understanding of the chemistry underpinning catalytic reactions but they also open up new opportunities for the optimization of such reactions.

Researchers at Columbia University have made a significant step toward visualizing small biomolecules inside living biological systems with minimum disturbance. Wei Min and colleagues have developed a general method to image a broad spectrum of small biomolecules, such as small molecular drugs and nucleic acids, amino acids, lipids for determining where they are localized and how they function inside cells. The team have departed from the conventional paradigm of fluorescence imaging of fluorophores instead coupled stimulated Raman scattering (SRS) microscopy with the use of an alkyne tag that gives them a strong, characteristic Raman signal. Our new technique will open up numerous otherwise difficult studies on small biomolecules in live cells and animals, explains Min. In addition to basic research, our technique could also contribute greatly to translational applications. I believe [it] could do for small biomolecules what fluorescence imaging of fluorophores such as green fluorescent protein has done for larger species.

Chemists from Queen's University Belfast are named on the UK's Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) roll of honor for their research into removing mercury from natural gas. The IChemE's Nicklin Medal is awarded jointly to Queen’s Ionic Liquid Laboratories (QUILL) and PETRONAS for the project. The award of the IChemE Nicklin Medal is the latest accolade for the University's multi-award winning partnership with Malaysian oil and gas giant PETRONAS which has developed a much more environmentally friendly and safer gas production process.

Mayland Chang and Shahriar Mobashery of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA have discovered a new class of antibiotics to fight bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other drug-resistant bacteria. Screening in silico of 1.2 million compounds revealed that oxadiazoles would inhibit a penicillin-binding protein, PBP2a, and the biosynthesis of the cell wall that enables MRSA to resist other antibiotics. The oxadiazoles have demonstrated oral efficacy against MRSA and given that there is only one such antibiotic on the market this could prove a very useful find in the battle against a microbe that kills tens of thousands of people every year.

Bruce Lee has focused on mussels at Michigan Technological University to develop a hydrogel actuator. Hydrogels that can change shape on command could be used to deliver pharmaceuticals, Lee explains. We’ve taken a hydrogel and made it into an actuator: something that can change shape or move, maybe by opening the door for a drug and letting it out. Lee's team used 3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine a component of those mussel proteins and add it to a hydrogel pasted on to a piece of iron. pH changes stimulate bending of the hydrogel worm depending on where ions had been deposited electrolytically on the iron. A hydrogel could be programmed to adopt all manner of shapes by changing the placement of the ions, the composition of the hydrogel and the voltage. You can also remove the ions and reintroduce them in a different pattern, so that the same hydrogel can be reprogrammed to transform into a different shape.