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This week, The Alchemist finds a new way to template drugs, an atomic end to "Moore's law", recycling for incompatible polymers, a new spin cycle for hydrolyzing water without releasing hydrogen peroxide, the link between sex and viruses, and finally, the first US EACH scientist.

A catalyst-like template molecule has been designed by chemists at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, USA. The template can anchor itself temporarily to one part of a target molecule and then swing an atom of palladium, like a nanoscopic wrecking ball, to break a chemical bond elsewhere on the molecule. The tool allows chemists to make critical modifications to sites on organic molecules that are otherwise difficult or impossible to access with conventional reagents. “This approach provides a new way to rapidly modify the structures of complex organic molecules, and thus should be broadly useful in the pharmaceutical and other chemical industries,” explains team leader Jin-Quan Yu.

A computer memory unit based on a single atom could mark the end of Moore's Law, a rule-of-thumb invented by Gordon Moore, cofounder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, who suggested that the number of components that could be squeezed on to an integrated circuit, and thus computer power, would approximately double every eighteen months. A study published in Nature now shows that a single bit, a binary digit, can be stored in a single atom. This marks the ultimate limit of cramming components on to chips until subatomic particles become amenable to manipulation. The team demonstrated how they might read and write 1s and 0s to a single atom using the electrified tip of a scanning tunneling microscope.

Geoffrey Coates and colleagues at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA, have found a way to facilitate the recycling of two very different, and chemically "incompatible", plastics, polyethylene and polypropylene, into a multiblock co-polymer using a simple additive. The discovery could circumvent the problem of how to recycle waste streams containing these two materials. To date, the vast majority of waste plastic is simply incinerated or sent to landfill, very little is repurposed because separation and processing are usually so costly and in efficient and there has until now been no way to easily synthesize new polymer blends.

Controlling electron spin could lead to an efficient way to split water to generate hydrogen to power fuel cells, according to research at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel and Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands. The approach precludes formation of hydrogen peroxide as a byproduct, an issue that has made hydrolysis problematic. The team has demonstrated that when electron spins are aligned hydrogen peroxide is not formed because the ground state of hydrogen peroxide needs two electrons with opposite spins. Oxygen, by contrast, is generated when the electrons have parallel spins. The key was to coat the electrodes with titanium dioxide and to use a chiral, supramolecular structure, aggregates of zinc porphyrins to take control of the electron spin.

The X-ray structure of an ancient type of protein still used by life on earth, connects sexual reproduction and viral infection. The HAP2 protein from the single-celled alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii and the fusion protein from dengue virus both have an essential and almost identical role to play in facilitating fusion with a cell membrane and thus enabled sexual reproduction in which sperm and egg fuse and viral invasion in which a viral particle enters a host cell. The proteins emerged very early in the history of life on Earth and have remained consistent throughout.

Todd Pagano Rochester Institute of Technology is the first US scientist to be a visiting scholar for the EACH program, Excellence in Analytical Chemistry. The internationally recognized program facilitates cultural exchanges for analytical chemistry faculty and students with Europe. Pagano taught at Uppsala University in Sweden as part of the program. “The brilliant students with whom I worked during my time in Sweden were from Estonia, Ukraine, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Jordan, Greece and Nepal, among others,” said Pagano. “This is a great example of how teaching has a dual focus. It’s crucial to consider both our extensive knowledge of a particular subject, chemistry in this case, in addition to how we communicate that material to different audiences.”