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This week The Alchemist learns about a hydrogel scaffold that can act as an artificial ovary, how to sample selenium, how we can avoid a massive Ebola outbreak using pharma and vaccination, adding silver to gold nanoparticle chains for future optical computers, and how nanotechnology might also give us the ultimate sun protection. Finally, Elsevier gives out its green chemistry awards.

Determination of trace metals and other micronutrients in the population is important for epidemiological studies of the health effects of diet and environmental pollutants. The presence of selenium, particularly in children is critical to numerous enzymes and other proteins. However, the element is toxic at elevated levels. Now, a team from the Kermanshah University of Medical Sciences, in Kermanshah, Iran, have developed continuous sample drop flow microextraction coupled with iridium-modified tube graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrometry (GFAAS) as a sensitive method for analyzing selenium in blood plasma samples from children. The data they have obtained in their study offers a baseline for this particular population.

Health officials are on-guard for a new outbreak of the lethal Ebola virus. However, Arizona State University’s Charles Arntzen, who played a major role in developing a drug for the disease, ZMapp, suggests that the current outbreak is small and that there are new drugs in the pipeline that could help prevent its spread. Vaccination of people in surrounding areas should be a priority when a new outbreak is seen.

Chains of gold nanoparticles might be the light-conducting connectors for a future generation of optical computing devices, suggests research from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich. Conduction of photons in such nanowires would be achieved through plasmonic oscillations. Such waves travel at only 10 percent of the speed of light in a vacuum, but there would be a massive build up of heat. The LMU team has now shown that silver nanoparticles added to the system can reduce energy consumption and so keep the temperature down. With the silver nanoparticles in place energy is transported with almost no loss and on the femtosecond timescale, the team reports.

Nanoparticles that emulate the properties of the body's natural sun protection, the melanosomes, that produce the brown pigment melanin have been developed by a team at the University of California San Diego. The obvious application of such particles is in a new type of highly effective sunscreen. More subtly, however, the particles might be used to address skin problems such as vitiligo and albinism where defective melanin production leads to no natural sun protection in a person's skin either over the whole of their bodies or in patches.

The Elsevier Foundation Green and Sustainable Chemistry Challenge has rewarded work on chemistry that taps native plants, such as cashew nuts, to tackle mosquito-borne diseases through the development of environmentally friendly insecticides and work that focused on eco-remediation of land devastated by crude oil spills in Nigeria. Five finalists pitched their projects to a panel of judges in Berlin, Germany, having been selected from around 700 submissions. First prize went to Dênis Pires de Lima for work on insecticides from cashews and second prize went to Chioma Blaise Chikere for work in Nigeria. “The competition shows us how science can serve society by helping to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” explains Hannfried von Hindenburg, Senior Vice President of Global Communications at Elsevier.

Scientists at Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois, USA, have used a 3D printer to make a scaffold from a hydrogel. The team was then able to load this biocompatible scaffold with ovarian follicles from a female mouse and implanted it into the female. The follicles begin the maturation process within this implanted structure and released eggs, which were fertilized through natural mating. The females then went on to give birth to live young. The possibility of this technology being extended to humans with premature ovarian failure or POF induced by chemotherapy is a long way off as human follicles grow much bigger than mouse follicles, but the principle of a synthetic ovary has been established nevertheless.