ChemWeb Newsletter

Not a subscriber? Join now.June 27, 2006


This week the Alchemist discovers a chilly reminder of water's bizarre behavior that could make cryopreservation science fact rather than fiction, a new understanding of the underlying cause of Parkinson's disease, and discovers that Swiss chemists have peered into their crystal ball to find new materials and explain some old ones. Also in this week's Alchemical news round-up, simultaneous sensing for sensitive science and a way to clean up the infernal combustion.

A new discovery about yet another bizarre property of water could pave the way for cryopreservation. According to Anatoli Bogdan of the University of Helsinki, it might be possible to freeze the human body without devastating ice crystals forming in cells and bursting them. In medicine, cryopreservation is used to store sperm and embryos successfully, but whole organs are trickier because of the icy problem. Ice also seems to preclude the possibility of freezing someone before they die of an incurable disease and then thawing them out in years to come when a cure has been found. Bogdan's results suggest this may be possible outside of science fiction after all. He has found that he can produce low-density amorphous ice, or glassy water, by slowly supercooling aqueous droplets. When this glassy water melts it forms a highly viscous water, which Bogdan explains is not a new form of water, but because the freezing and melting processes side-step the crystal phase it could have implications for cryopreservation.

An explanation of why the brain cells that make dopamine go awry in Parkinson's disease could lead to new treatments for this debilitating disease. Susan Lindquist and Nancy Bonini of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers have pinpointed defects in a critical cellular pathway that can lead to the death of dopamine-producing nerve cells and ultimately the symptoms of the disease. They have also found a way to rescue dying neurons in several animal models of Parkinson's disease, which could offer hope of developing new drugs to fight the underlying cause. Lindquist cautions that the findings are yet to be confirmed in people. "However," she says, "given the fact that we've found the same results in yeast, flies, worms and rat neurons, I would be very surprised if we didn't find that they were relevant in humans."

Swiss researchers have used a new crystal structure prediction program to systematically explore the high-pressure chemistry of molecular elements, including hydrogen and oxygen. Their surprising predictions suggest that novel forms exist. For instance, hydrogen and oxygen should remain molecular at pressures up to 6 Mbar and 2.5 Mbar, respectively. Additionally, the researcher predicted the unique structures of red and black oxygen as well as suggesting several novel carbon allotropes that might have unique physical properties. Artem Oganov and colleagues at ETH Zurich reckon their structure predictions resolve several longstanding debates in chemistry as well as offering opportunities for making new and useful materials.

A new type of sensor that can measure carbon dioxide and oxygen levels simultaneously without interference has been devised by Otto Wolfbeis and colleagues at the University of Regensburg in Germany. The sensor could revolutionize studies of plant respiration and photosynthesis, an area until now plagued by interference in which only one of the two gases could be determined at a time. It could also have application in the food and drink industry as well as in the biotech industry where fermentation and related plant processes are important. "It is likely to become a powerful tool in combinatorial microbiology, in cell-based screening for drugs, and in biomonitoring in general," Wolfbeis explains. "In combination with fiber optic microsensors, in vivo sensing of oxygen and carbon dioxide should be possible."

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new type of combustion chamber for engine or gas turbines that burns with lower emissions than conventional engineering. Nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide emissions from this combustor are almost zero, according to Ben Zinn and colleagues. "We must burn fuel to power aircrafts and generate electricity for our homes. The combustion community is working very hard to find ways to burn the fuel completely and derive all of its energy while minimizing emissions," says Zinn. Called the Stagnation Point Reverse Flow Combustor, the Georgia Tech device, originally developed for NASA, significantly reduces NOx and CO emissions in a variety of aircraft engines and gas turbines that burn gaseous or liquid fuels. It burns fuel with NOx emissions below 1 parts per million (ppm) and CO emissions lower than 10 ppm, significantly lower than emissions produced by other combustors.