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The Alchemist gets a taste for chocolate this week with genomics news that could improve cocoa crops but hopes to avoid the sickly waters of Spain where evidence is trickling out that in one region at least cocaine, ecstasy and heroin are to be found in irrigation water. Viagra looks set to save prostate cancer sufferers from a lot of heart ache while "dry water" could help solve the CO2 problem. Laser cooling of molecules also takes us another step towards the quantum computer. Finally, the latest NIH research award could improve understanding of the chemistry of programmed cell death and open up countless new avenues of disease research.




The genome of Theobroma cacao, the plant whose bitter beans are converted into that sweet delicacy, chocolate, has been sequenced. In a Nature Precedings preprint, researchers at chocolatier Mars and its collaborators have reported full details. Having the genetic code for this plant to hand could lead to new biotechnologies for protecting crops and modifying flavor for novel products. "The large amount of information generated by this project dramatically changes the status of this tropical plant and its potential interest for the scientific community," explains team member Mark Guiltinan, professor of plant molecular biology, Pennsylvania State University, who collaborated with the team of Claire Lanaud of CIRAD, France.





Cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and residues of several other illicit drugs are present in the water of canals and irrigation channels in L'Albufera Natural Park in Valencia, Spain, according to Yolanda Picó and colleagues at the University of Valencia. The team reports that cocaine and its metabolites were to be found in all the samples taken and ecstasy (3.4-methylendioximetamphetamine, or MDMA) was almost as common. The highest concentrations were seen in the north of the park where waste water is regularly discharged from areas of high population density, industry and nightclubs.





Combining the anticancer drug doxorubicin with the erectile dysfunction drug sildenafil citrate, better known as Viagra, toughens up the drug's ability to treat prostate cancer and at the same time reduce the irreversible damage to the heart that can occur in doxorubicin use. Investigators at Virginia Commonwealth University discovered that the combination stimulates production of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species, which trigger programmed cell death in prostate cancer cells but not in healthy prostate epithelial cells.





A material comprising 95 percent water that exists as a dry powder could be the new hope for amelioration of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, according to researchers speaking at the recent American Chemical Society meeting. The material, first identified in 1968 when it was used in cosmetics, it then "rediscovered" by UK chemists who spotted its potential for absorbing large volumes of CO2. The material is made up of tiny particles of silica within which water is trapped. Absorbed gases form hydrates within the silica particles, whether carbon dioxide or methane to be used as fuel.





A new method of laser cooling molecules to close to absolute zero has been developed by scientists at Yale University. The technique represents another step towards using individual molecules, or collections of molecules as information bits in quantum computing. Laser cooling of atoms is relatively commonplace, but this is the first demonstration of applying the technique successfully to molecules, specifically strontium monofluoride. Team leader David DeMille suggests that the technique could be used for other molecular entities and opens up a range of possibilities in this chilly field.





Texas Tech University chemist Dimitri Pappas has received a $520,000 grant to find better methods of studying apoptosis, or programmed cell death. His research could lead to more useful pharmaceutical products for heart disease and cancer. The assistant professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry receives the three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. Currently, ways to measure apoptosis are time-consuming and limit scientists' understanding of how it might be manipulated, he said. Pappas will use the grant to discover new methods to rapidly measure the rate of death in a number of cells. The work should uncover new targets for pharmaceutical intervention.