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Amyloid fibers could become a target for novel therapeutics in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, according to UK scientists who have demonstrated the toxicity of these substances once thought to be inert. In nanotechnology, US researchers have developed a resonating detector that can count and size up nanoparticles without the need for any kind of tag. Chemists at Harvard U have developed oxidizing gold nanoparticles for making esters, the key ingredients of biofuels and fragrances. In the analytical world, scientists have discovered that the mysterious varnish on Stradivarius violins has no secret sauce after all. A peptide forest coating windows and solar panels could make window cleaners redundant. Finally, anticancer compounds win Guillaume Lessene a major award in Australia.

A new challenge to the theory regarding the place of proteinaceous materials known as amyloids present in the brains of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients could open up a route to novel therapeutics if proven correct. Sheena Radford and colleagues at the University of Leeds have shown that amyloid fibers are not in fact inert but could be toxic, with shorter fibers being more potent than longer ones. "We've revisited an old suspect with very surprising results," says Radford, "Whilst we've only looked in detail at three of the 30 or so proteins that form amyloid in human disease, our results show that the fibres they produce are indeed toxic to cells especially when they are fragmented into shorter fibres."

A physics preprint from Jiangang Zhu and colleagues at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, explains how to count nanoparticles, determine their mass, and measure their radius. Everyone from solar cell researchers to cosmetics manufacturers need metrics on their nanoparticles. But nanodetectors are not yet commonplace. Now, Zhu's team has developed a technique that precludes fluorescence tagging and uses mechanical resonance to detect and determine nanoparticles instead. A tiny resonating toroid on a stalk - an ultra-high-Q microresonator - is all they need for an accurate and reliable detector, the whole system could be built on to a single lab-on-a-chip type device.

Gold nanoparticles can catalyze the formation of esters commonly used in biofuels and perfumes. The oxygen-coated nanoparticles selectively oxidise a variety of alcohols and aldehydes at low temperature with high yields, according to Cynthia Friend and colleagues at Harvard University, Massachusetts. Catalytic chemist Graham Hutchings at Cardiff University, UK, is enthusiastic about the work. "This is an excellent model study on gold surfaces - really elegant experimental work," he told Chemistry World.

The varnish in the beautiful violins of Antonio Stradivari has fascinated musicians, violinmakers, historians, and most recently chemists. Now, a European team has taken minute samples from carefully selected parts of five violins for microscopic and spectroscopic analysis. Although the instruments were made over a period of three decades their varnishes are all very similar but for variations in red pigments used to produce different colored instruments. Intriguingly, all the ingredients in the varnishes are well-known materials from Stradivari's period, there was no secret ingredient, the chemists say.

Self-cleaning solar panels and windows might soon be possible thanks to nanotechnology developed at New Tel Aviv University. Writing in Nature Nanotechnology, Ehud Gazit and colleagues describe a way to assemble peptides so that they form a kind of molecular forest on the surface of a substrate. These "peptide forests" would repel dust and water, making them potentially a perfect self-cleansing coating for windows and solar panels. The team has already been approached to develop its coating technology commercially. But, The Alchemist is curious as to how transparent a peptide coating might be...

Guillaume Lessene receives this year's Biota Award for Medicinal Chemistry from the Royal Australian Chemical Institute for his work on small molecules that target a protein involved in tumour development, metastasis, and cancer-drug resistance. Lessene, who is based at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, has together with eight co-inventors made a patent application for the compounds, which can trigger apoptosis, programmed cell death, in cancer cells. "It is expected that drugs targeting [these] Bcl-2-like proteins will have a major impact in cancer treatment," Lessene explains.