ChemWeb Newsletter

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Some unusual chemical news this week, beginning with the discovery of hydrogen peroxide in interstellar space by European astronomers, while British chemists hint that organic life might have had a start in an inorganic shell. German analysts are hoping to track down the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls and US researchers suggest that children are chemically either doves or hawks for evolutionary advantage. In pharmaceutical news, the discovery that a chemokine causes the pain of sunburn might lead to new ways to treat this often self-inflicted problem as well as representing a novel lead for analgesic drug discovery. And, this week's personal news reports that chemist Marye Anne Fox is to step down from the role of chancellor at UCSD.




Children respond differently to stress depending on their personality type - "dove" or "hawk" - but the response boils down to how levels of the stress hormone cortisol change and affect them. Doves are cautious and submissive when confronted by new potentially stressful environments whereas hawks are bold and assertive in unfamiliar settings. These basic temperamental patterns are linked to opposite hormonal responses to stress, according to a new study from the University of Rochester, in New York State. This biochemical response may have provided our human ancestors with adaptive survival advantages, the researchers suggest. Dovish compliance may work better under some challenging family conditions, while hawkish aggression could be an asset in others, they say.





In 2009, Spanish researchers reported that the small chemokine protein, CXCL5, helps cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes and others expressed a link with cell signaling in cancer. Now it turns out, that this same molecule is involved in making sunburn painful. Writing in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Stephen McMahon of King's College London and colleagues report how this inflammatory molecule activates nerve fibers to cause pain and tenderness after prolonged exposure of the skin to ultraviolet-B rays. "This finding might be indicative of a more general role of CXCL5 in a variety of clinically relevant inflammatory pain states, for instance osteoarthritis or cystitis," says McMahon. The finding could lead to novel analgesic drugs.





Chemist Marye Anne Fox has announced her retirement after seven years from the role of chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, and a return to her physical organic roots in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry where she will conduct research and teach. In an open letter to the UC San Diego community, Fox described several achievements from her tenure, including completion of a $1 billion capital campaign and initiation of $3.5 billion in capital improvements. Fox is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was named a Fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2010.





Great news for cosmic hairdressers. Astronomers operating the ESO-operated APEX telescope in Chile have added another important chemical, hydrogen peroxide, to the growing list of inorganic and organic molecules found in the cosmic dust and gas between the stars. Terrestrially speaking, hydrogen peroxide plays a key role in the chemistry of water and ozone in our planet's atmosphere, and is familiar in solution form for its use as hair bleach and disinfectant. The discovery of the compound in space could offer new clues as to the chemical link between two molecules critical for life: water and oxygen and how they formed primordially.





Might inorganic nanocapsules have been the minute reaction vessels that allowed life to emerge? Research by Stephen Mann of the University of Bristol, UK, and colleagues suggests the answer to that question might be yes. Mann's team created silicon-based membranes with hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties akin to those of lipid bilayers in natural cells and produced nanoparticulate, self-assembled "protocells" which acted as primitive semi-permeable membranes. "Lipids and fatty acids may not have been available in the very early stages of pre-biotic organization because of the complexity of their chemical synthesis," says Mann. "As a plausible alternative, inorganic-based mechanisms might have emerged to produce the membrane-bound compartments required for the origin of life."





The Dead Sea Scrolls are decaying, they have been since their discovery in the 1940s and 1950s, so any analytical procedure used to investigate them has to be as non-invasive as possible. Now, X-ray fluorescence has been used to help scholars settle a decades-old archeological debate: were the Dead Sea Scroll texts written in the environs or were they just stored there? Researchers in Germany are using the non-invasive analytical technique to determine the origins of the parchment itself using the bromine to chlorine ratio locked inside. Parchment was made by soaking animal skin in water, Given that the Br:Cl ratio varies between water sources it might be possible to pin down where the parchment was made. Of course, the origin of the parchment would not necessarily settle the debate as parchment could have been traded across great distances before it was used.