ChemWeb Newsletter

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Publishers' select

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This week, The Alchemist learns how to use gut fungi from grass-munching animals such as horses and sheep to efficiently convert biomass into sugars for biofuel production, how to tie complicated knots in DNA, why cholesterol research might please Woody Allen, what is the impact of microplastic on the sex life of the oyster and the chemistry of an extraterrestrial atmosphere. This week's award is a game of thrones for an author and a chemist.

Anaerobic gut fungi from goats, horses and sheep perform as well as the best fungi engineered by industry in converting biomass into sugars that can then be transformed into biofuel and other products, according to work carried out at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, PNNL, in Richland, Washington, USA. "Nature has engineered these fungi to have what seems to be the world's largest repertoire of enzymes that break down biomass," says lead author Michelle O'Malley, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

A complicated molecular knot with more than thirty crossovers forms spontaneously from a designer DNA, according to researchers at the National Institute of Chemistry of Slovenia. Team leader Roman Jerala and colleagues report the discovery of the method for the design and preparation of highly knotted molecular structures in the journal Nature Communications. The team explains that the knotting is encoded by the arrangement of modules of different stability based in the DNA. Only the one with the folding pathway designed according to the ‘free-end’ rule folds efficiently into the target structure; the same approach could be used to knot RNA and proteins for nanotechnology applications.

In what might seem to be an extract from the futuristic Woody Allen movie, Sleeper, it turns out that dietary cholesterol is not the cardiovascular problem we once thought it was, even if you have "bad" genes. New work from the University of Eastern Finland reveals that eating an egg a day, which represents a relatively high intake of dietary cholesterol, is not associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Moreover, there is no association with heart disease even in people with the APOE4 phenotype, which affects cholesterol metabolism and is common among the Finnish population. Details were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Tiny fragments of plastic the size of plankton are affecting the sex lives of oysters, according to new research. Female oysters exposed to microplastic particles made 38% fewer eggs, and males made sperm that were 23% less motile, according to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Whether or not the detrimental effect is due to the mollusks having to expend more energy on digestion or whether the microplastics are directly disrupting reproductive hormones is not yet known. Either way, the laboratory experiments suggest that polymer pollution could be having serious negative impacts on marine ecosystems.

The search for a distant planet that might be sufficiently similar to Earth that life may have arisen there is an ongoing quest for astronomers and so-called astrobiologists. Now, a super-earth, orbiting a distant star has been discovered to have a low-density, dry atmosphere containing carbon. Earlier work revealed hydrogen and helium, but no water vapor in the atmosphere of the exoplanet, 55 Cancri e. This "diamond" planet is thought to have a mass more than eight times that of Earth and a carbon-rich, core, hence its nickname. New processing of data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope by scientists in Europe led by University College London reveals unprecedented details about its chemistry in the Astrophysical Journal.

Internationally renowned chemist Peter Stang of the University of Utah and "Song of Ice and Fire" author George R.R. Martin are both to receive honorary doctorates from Texas A&M University. Stang's research is fundamental science across physical, organic, inorganic and petroleum chemistry. Stang has been involved with faculty on numerous national and international committees and organizations and served as inaugural Fellow of the Texas A&M Institute for Advanced Study. Martin, whose book was adapted for television as the well-known fantasy drama "Game of Thrones," has been affiliated with Texas A&M since the 1970s when he began attending AggieCon science fiction conventions.