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A massive cash injection could help British scientists develop personalized medicine, The Alchemist discovers this week. In chemistry news too there are some major developments and an ancient discovery revisited. We learn of nanoscopic structures that resemble dandelion seed heads, how lasers could speed up the next generation of computer hard drives potentially by up to 50,000 times, and learn that the real alchemists of three centuries past knew the hazards of "exploding quicksilver" but not its structure. Scientists may have pinned down the health hazards associated with popcorn manufacture to the "buttery" additive diacetyl, and finally size does matter when you are using an InChI.

Five million sterling (about $11m) is being invested in the development of personalised medicines at the University of Liverpool. The money will help fund research into pharmacogenomics, which will ultimately lead to the introduction of treatments tailored for individual patients. The Liverpool team estimates that a quarter of a million people are admitted to hospital in the UK each year following adverse drug reactions (ADRs) to common prescription drugs, the equivalent figures for the US are just as high proportionally. However, if the physician could check a patient's likely response to a specific drug in advance of administering it based on the patient's genetic profile, such ADRs might be minimized by prescribing an alternative therapy. As such, pharmacogenomics aims to achieve maximum benefit and reduced risk of ADRs or side-effects.

Xiao-Fang Shen and Xiu-Ping Yan of Nankai University have created a floral display with a difference. They created bundles of cysteine-lead nanowires that are then spread to form a bouquet of highly oriented nano "dandelions". The approach is an inexpensive way to make nanomaterials with potentially a wide range of applications. Moreover, they can be produced on a large scale, at room temperature, and under atmospheric pressure. "Our new process enables the simple, controlled synthesis of nanowires and three-dimensional lead sulfide microstructures," explains Yan, "In addition, we expect to gain new insights into the fundamental processes involved in mineralization, the transformation of bioorganic nano- and microstructures into inorganic structures. This process also occurs in living organisms, in which it plays an important role."

Japanese and Dutch researchers have succeeded in changing the magnetic polarity of a memory bit using circularly-polarized laser light instead of an applied magnetic field. The process is about 50,000 times faster than magnetic switching and could eventually lead to ultra-fast all-optical magnetic hard disk drives. Theo Rasing of the Radboud University Nijmegen and colleagues at Nihon University, Japan, demonstrated their method by flipping the magnetization of a 5 micrometer-wide spot on a thin magnetic film from up to down and vice versa. 5 micrometers is much wider than the bits on a modern hard drive, however, so there is still much development work to be carried out before laser-driven hard drives are a reality.

Three centuries after its discovery by alchemists, the crystal structure of mercury fulminate - an explosive detonation compound - has finally been determined. Out of date textbook and literature representations will have to be revised, according to Wolfgang Beck, Thomas Klapötke and their colleagues at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany. The team used X-ray crystallography to obtain a precise structure of mercury fulminate, known in German as Knallquecksilber, meaning literally "bang quicksilver". The crystal is orthorhombic and composed of separate Hg(CNO)2 molecules that are near linear: O−N≡C−Hg−C≡N−O. "We can unambiguously show that the molecules in the crystal have a stretched-out, nearly linear form," explains Beck, "They are not bent, and each mercury atom is not bound to two oxygen atoms, as they are amazingly still occasionally depicted in the literature."

Diacetyl, the buttery-like additive used in microwave popcorn could be the causative agent in so-called "popcorn worker's lung," or more formally bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome (BOS). BOS is a severe occupational lung disease first observed in 2001 among workers at US plant that makes microwaveable popcorn. Frits van Rooyof the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and colleagues examined a population of workers at a chemical plant that produced diacetyl (a key component of butter flavoring). "Our study found a cluster of [previously undiagnosed] BOS cases in a diacetyl production plant," van Rooy explains, "This supports the conclusion that an agent in the diacetyl production process has caused BOS." The findings were reported in the September issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. The novel finding of four cases of BOS in workers at the diacetyl plant has important implications for practicing physicians and public health officials, although a definitive connection between diacetyl itself and the onset of BOS is yet to be obtained.

The International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) has launched a new version of its InChI chemical identifier system- InChIKey. This condensed version can represent almost any chemical substance with a fixed string of just 25 characters and could make searching the web for specific compounds much simpler by preventing unpredictable line breaks and other problems with InChI strings of arbitrary length. IUPAC suggests that InChIKey will facilitate web-based chemistry lookup services and allow InChI to be stored in fixed length database fields and so make chemical structure database indexing far easier. It will also allow InChI strings to be verified easily across networks.