ChemWeb Newsletter

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This week The Alchemist hears of milk being used in painting almost 50000 years in South Africa, a universal substrate for high-performance, but cheaper, spectroscopy, an anticancer compound from the bark of the magnolia tree, and the physical chemistry of cometary sinkholes. Also, this week brewing up carbon dioxide to trap disease-carrying insects. Finally, cue music... we could be heroes!

Artists in South Africa who lived almost 50000 years ago, used milk and ochre in their paintings according to a study by researchers at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and their colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder, USA. The milk, rather than being from farmed animals, was most likely obtained by killing lactating members of the bovid family such as buffalo, eland, kudu and impala, the researchers say. Either way the discovery by Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and lead study author, and her colleagues pre-dates the known domestication of bovids by humans by many millennia.

Unlocking the full potential of surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) will only happen when a universal substrate for the technique is developed. Now, an international team led by scientists and engineers at the University at Buffalo, New York, USA, have turned to nanotechnology to simplify SERS and hopefully preclude the need for a different substrate for each type of analysis. "[This] allows us to rapidly identify and measure chemical and biological molecules using a broadband nanostructure that traps a wide range of light," Buffalo's Qiaoqiang Gan explains. The system could be used in explosives and chemical weapons detection, environmental pollution monitoring, medical diagnostics and even in spotting art fraud.

A compound found in magnolia trees could be used to treat squamous cell head and neck cancers, a scourge among those who use tobacco and alcohol, according to US researchers. The phytochemical honokiol extracted from magnolia bark has been shown to shrink tumors via several different biochemical pathways, which bodes well for preventing resistance to the drug developing. However, the primary target is the protein epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR, which honokiol inhibits. EGFR is over-expressed in almost all head and neck cancers. Senior author Santosh Katiyar: "Conclusively, honokiol appears to be an attractive bioactive small molecule phytochemical for the management of head and neck cancer which can be used either alone or in combination with other available therapeutic drugs."

Cometary physical chemistry could be to blame for the presence of sinkholes on the surface of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft first went into orbit around the comet almost one year ago (in August 2014). Scientists got a first close-up view of surprisingly deep, almost perfectly circular pits on the comet's surface. Now, a new study based on close-up photographs sent back to Earth by Rosetta suggests that these pits are sinkholes, formed through physical chemistry as the ices, comprising primarily water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, beneath the comet's surface sublimate.

Crushed seashells and vinegar or baking soda and fruit acid could be the ingredients of a new insect lure that could be used to monitor and ultimately reduce the deadly impact of disease-bearing insects in Africa, according to researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The readily available materials could be used to generate mosquito-attracting carbon dioxide, which is not as accessible a commodity in gas cylinder form in remote parts of the developing world as it is in a well-equipped laboratory elsewhere. In field trials, the team could trap thousands of mosquitoes by luring them into the trap with carbon dioxide generated by the reaction of sodium bicarbonate and citric acid, for instance. “We developed and tested inexpensive and easily reproducible methods of carbon dioxide production from the combination of acids and carbonates,” said Burkett-Cadena, a faculty member at the University of Florida's Vero Beach laboratory in Burkina Faso.

The American Chemical Society has announced its 2015 Heroes of Chemistry, which includes representatives nominated by Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene Corporation, Dow Chemical, Eastman Chemical Company, Gilead Sciences Inc, and Pfizer. The commercial success of the products developed by the winners and their colleagues is an important criterion for this honor. As the ACS says, "we recognize that good business results follow good science."