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After a non-disruptive summer break, The Alchemist returns marginally refreshed but with an aviation-acquired virus to bring you a new approach to using electron microscopy that could work well in following the dynamics of proteins and DNA, a powerful catalyst for converting carbon dioxide, a fat-burning skin patch, and a new method for carrying out crystallography when a molecule is essentially uncrystallizable. In this issue, we also see perhaps the world's first molecular robot for building molecules and a materialistic award.

A new approach to observing polymers under the electron microscope by trapping them in a graphene pocket could make it possible to study proteins and DNA without staining for microscopy. Scientists at the Institute for Basic Science, in Daejeon, Korea, suggest the approach could be used to look at dynamic behavior of many biological molecules that is usually inaccessible to conventional techniques. The approach sidesteps the problem of the electron beam simply destroying a liquid sample before it can be visualized by holding the moving polymer chains within 3 to 5 graphene layers that form a pocket that protects them long enough from the electrons' destructive energy that they can be seen.

A perennial problem of modern chemistry is how to convert carbon dioxide into more useful compounds. A team at Berkeley Lab, California, has now developed a copper catalyst that can directly convert carbon dioxide into multi-carbon fuels and alcohols using a much smaller amount of energy than previous efforts. Peidong Yang and colleagues have demonstrated that an electrocatalyst comprising copper nanoparticles provides the necessary environment to transform carbon dioxide into ethylene, ethanol, and propanol. The process works with a record low over-potential that is about 300 millivolts less than typical electrocatalysts, the team reports.

A fat-burning skin patch has been tested on obese mice at Columbia University Medical Center. The patch contains a pharmaceutical that converts white, subcutaneous, fat, into brown adipose tissue and so could be used not only to remedy local fat deposits for cosmetic purposes without surgery but could also boost metabolism and perhaps treat obesity and metabolic disorders should it prove viable in people. The drug, rosiglitazone (Avandia) or CL316243, a beta adrenergic agonist, led to a 20 percent reduction in fat on treated sites in the laboratory mice.

The big problem with protein crystallography is that so many proteins do not form crystals or are very stubborn to do so. A team in Japan has now found a way to increase the probability of obtaining well-ordered crystals by minimizing the conformational heterogeneity in a target protein. In a proof of principle, the team has created a new chimeric antibody fragment that was part of an essentially uncrystallizable. This, the Osaka University researchers suggest, allows them to access a drug target because the fragment is functionally identical to the whole protein.

In the sci-fi world, nanotechnology often talked of nanoscopic machines building other nanoscopic machines, now that fiction is becoming fact as scientists at the University of Manchester, create a molecular robot that can synthesize other molecules. David Leigh and colleagues have constructed their robot from 150 carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms. The robot follows instructions given to it by various inputs working like a car assembly line robot but where individual atoms and small molecules are the components and the control commands are themselves chemical inputs rather than computer code.

The German Society for Materials Science (DGM) has this year awarded Eduard Arzt its highest accolade, the Heyn Commemorative Medal. Arzt who is scientific director of the INM - Leibniz-Institut für Neue Materialien gGmbH, receives the award for his work in the fields of powder metallurgy, high-temperature alloys, nanostructures and adhesion of bio-inspired functional surfaces and their industrial applications. The award is in recognition of his creativity, the breadth of his research as well as his commitment to the next generation of materials scientists.