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This week, The Alchemist rises to the lure of healthy watermelons, learns how a 12-year-old project has solved a greenhouse mystery, and reflects on Raman spectroscopy for a sensitivity boost. Also in the news this week, could a role for the cholesterol-lowering statins lie in their ability to boost the brain's "stem cells"? And, could copper nanorods lead to huge energy savings for the chemical industry by speeding up boiling processes? Finally, this week's award goes to Martien Cohen Stuart for his outstanding work in the field of soft condensed matter.

Martien Cohen Stuart of the Wageningen University in the Netherlands is this year's recipient of the AkzoNobel Science Award for his renowned research into the physical chemistry of soft condensed matter. Cohen Stuart will officially receive the AkzoNobel Science Award in Haarlem on October 1 at the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities - the organization responsible for selecting the winner. The event will be given extra significance by the fact that Haarlem is Cohen Stuart’s home town. Stuart's extensive theoretical knowledge and ability to turn fundamental discoveries into innovations has revealed much about how molecules organize themselves to endow materials with specific properties, such as softness, elasticity and transparency.

An intriguing finding regarding a natural product present in watermelons, citrulline, suggests that the fleshy fruit may offer an alternative to little blue tablets for men with erectile dysfunction. According to Bhimu Patil of Texas A&M’s Fruit and Vegetable Improvement Center in College Station, citrulline (2-amino-5-ureido-pentanoic acid) is present in large amounts in watermelon. This compound is readily metabolized to the amino acid arginine, which in turn is known to have a relaxing effect on blood vessels and has been linked with several health benefits. Arginine boosts nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels, the same basic effect that Viagra has, to treat erectile dysfunction and maybe even prevent it, Patil says.

A twelve-year-old project has finally provided a clear picture of how a key enzyme that allows methanogenic microbes to produce carbon dioxide and methane works. Michael Chan, Joseph Krzycki and colleagues at Ohio State University say their structure could have industrial and environmental importance. "This enzyme is the key to the whole process of methanogenesis from acetic acid," Krzycki explains, "Without it, this form of methanogenesis wouldn't happen. Since it is so environmentally important worldwide, the impact of understanding this would be enormous." New insights based on the work might even open up new avenues for industrial biotransformation processes.

A new approach to carrying out Raman spectroscopy and fluorescence measurements has been developed by UK scientists. Their approach exploits the backscattering nature of Raman and reflects the laser light used in the technique back into the system so that they can increase sensitivity and reduce spectral acquisition times. Kevin Buckley, Neil Macleod, Anthony Parker, and Pavel Matousek of the STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, in Oxfordshire and Allen Goodship of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, Middlesex, explain that their technique has potential applications in pharmaceutical research, forensic science and security screening, where mixed media samples are common.

Medical science suspects that cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may also play a role in protecting the brain from dementia, but until now there have been few studies that even hint at a possible mechanism. Now, Steven Goldman and colleagues at the University of Rochester, New York, have demonstrated that, in the laboratory at least, statins can affect glial progenitor cells. These cells are akin to stem cells and help the brain stay healthy by serving as a crucial reservoir of cells that the brain can customize depending on its needs. Statins it seems stymie the flexibility of these cells perhaps removing their protective effect. "These findings were made through experiments done in cell culture using human brain cells and exposing them to doses of statins used widely in patients", says Goldman, "But this research was not done in people. There are a great number of questions that need to be explored further before anyone considers changing the way statins are used."

Copper nanorods that line a metal boiling vessel could be used to increase liquid boiling efficiency significantly. The result is that water can be boiled with an order of magnitude less energy than in a conventional smooth metal vessel, according to work done at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "Our discovery was completely unexpected," explains team leader Nikhil Koratkar, The increased boiling efficiency seems to be the result of an interesting interplay between the nanoscale and microscale surfaces of the treated metal. Such a significant increase in boiling efficiency could be exploited in cooling computer chips, improving heat transfer systems, and reducing the costs for industrial boiling applications.