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This week, the Alchemist is digging in the dirt to find out about the carbon cycle and climate change, taking his whisky with or without water, and discovering how to juggle molecules, on the other hand. Also in biochemical news this week, the crystal structure of a plant hormone receptor is revealed while researchers in Israel focus on blocking the protein misfolding that occurs in Alzheimer's disease. Finally, medical materials win a coveted award for innovation.

The earth beneath our feet contains more than twice the carbon than is present in the atmosphere, says Myrna Simpson of the University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada. However, scientists know little of how significant this carbon pool is. Now, she and her colleagues are using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to take a close look at the organic, carbon-containing components of soil with a view to understanding its possible impact on environmental chemistry. "Through our research, we've sought to determine what soils are made up of at the molecular level and whether this composition will change in a warmer world," Simpson says.

Just in time for the season of celebrations, chemists have figured out an answer to that hoary old chestnut - water or not, when drinking whisky. John Piggot, from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, unlocks the chemical secrets of perhaps the most complicated alcoholic beverage in the world and comes down in favor of personal taste. Whiskies, whether Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, Kentucky, or moonshine, contain hundreds of compounds, including fatty acids, esters, alcohols, and aldehydes, in a wide range of concentrations. Apparently, adding water to whisky does indeed release some flavors, but masks others, while not adding water masks nothing but reveals no additional aromatic notes either.

Finding a way to induce a specific handedness in biological molecules may help explain nature's chiral bias as well as leading to new approaches to creating therapeutic agents that are more effective than their racemic counterparts. Now, Richard Rosenberg of Argonne National Laboratory has found the way using strong X-rays to bombard chiral molecules adsorbed on a magnetic substrate. He and his colleagues found that changing the magnetization direction in relation to the high-intensity X-ray beam created a usable enantiomeric excess.

There comes a time in every plant's life when it starts thinking about the birds and the bees. That time arrives when the sap is rising, or more realistically when the phytochemical gibberellin kicks into action. Now, crystallography has revealed the structure of the gibberellin protein receptor, which could help in designing more effective and potentially cheaper growth regulators for agriculture, according to Peter Hedden, a plant biochemist at Rothamsted Research, UK. Toshio Hakoshima, of the Nara Institute of Science & Technology, in Japan and Tai-ping Sun, and colleagues at Duke University were responsible for determining the structure.

Ehud Gazit at the University of Tel Aviv, Israel, and colleagues have developed a novel approach for treatment of Alzheimer's disease. They have developed a compound made from two non-physiological amino acids, that appears to improve the cognitive abilities of a murine model of the disease and reduces the formation of the precursors to amyloid plaques in their brains. Alzheimer's is the most common cause of age-related dementia, afflicting about 15 million people as well as having a serious impact on relatives, friends and the healthcare system.

A unique surface engineering process developed at the Micro-Nano Technology Centre (MNTC) at Science and Technology Facilities Council, in collaboration with the Electrospinning Company Ltd, and researchers at Anglia Ruskin University, in the UK could lead to much more reliable and durable medical implants. The potential medical impact of the technology has now been recognized with the awarding of a Medical Futures Innovation Award. The Award is one of the UK's most coveted medical awards, rewarding groundbreaking innovation from frontline clinicians and scientists.