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The Alchemist this week learns how that almost miraculous substance, water, can be used as a flip-flop droplets logically and how chemists are making their mark on Mars while students are developing technology to improve things down here on Earth. Meanwhile, Popeye's favorite veggie, spinach, is making a sunny comeback and new insights into a ubiquitous protein could lead to countless new disease targets for medicinal chemists. Finally a sustainable prize for a European chemist.

Marc Taillefer of the Institut Charles Gerhardt (ICG) in Montpellier, France, is the 2012 winner of the European Sustainable Chemistry Award (ECSA). Taillefer is recognized for his work in the area of homogeneous catalysis and specifically coupling reactions that form C-C, C-N, C-O and C-P bonds. His Ullmann-type arylations catalysed by copper and iron complexes sidestep the rare and more expensive palladium as the metal component of the catalyst. The ECSA was inaugurated in 2010 by the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences (EuCheMS) to raise the profile of sustainable chemistry and be a spur to innovation and competitiveness. It is encouraged by the European Environment Agency (EEA) and backed by the European Platform for Sustainable Chemistry (SusChem) and the European Chemical Industry Association (CEFIC).

A team from Aalto University in Finland are using droplets of water rather than silicon chips to carry out computational tasks. The research was facilitated by the development of superhydrophobic materials on which tracks can be drawn. In the study, the team coated a copper surface with silver and chemically modified with a fluorinated compound. The droplets can roll along the tracks and the team has demonstrated how their movements can be exploited in a flip-flop Boolean logic operation.

The ChemCam instrument aboard NASA's Curiosity rover has now recorded its first spectra on the red planet, Mars. The spectral test proved that the appropriate systems are functioning properly but also offered a sneak preview of the spectra of Martian rocks. "We got a great spectrum of [the rock called] Coronation - lots of signal," explains ChemCam Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory, in New Mexico. "Our team is both thrilled and working hard, looking at the results. After eight years building the instrument, it's payoff time!" ChemCam uses laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), which has been used on Earth to access spectra non-invasively in extreme environments such as the interior of nuclear reactors and on the deep ocean floor.

Nine students participating in the 2012 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition have taken the first steps towards the development of a low-cost biosensor that can detect major pathogens, and in particular those that cause diarrhea, a major killer of children in the developing world. The team will present its device to the iGEM regional competition at Stanford University and then move on to the global competition in November at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Could spinach be the key to boosting solar energy panels? An interdisciplinary team of researchers at Vanderbilt University, New York, have made a hybrid material by grafting a photosynthetic protein from the spinach plant on to silicon. They say the current output from their leafy device is much greater than that possible with earlier biohybrid solar cells. “This combination produces current levels almost one thousand times higher than we were able to achieve by depositing the protein on various types of metals,” team member David Cliffel explains, it also led to a modest increase in voltage. In order to make efficient solar cells both current and voltage usually need to be increased concomitantly given that power output is a product of the two.

New insights into the behavior of an important RNA-binding protein, LIN28, which is involved in cancer and many other diseases could change the way medical scientists look at disease. Research carried out at the University of California San Diego studied embryonic stem cells and somatic cells and discovered that there are discrete binding sites for LIN28 in 25 percent of human proteins, amounting to thousands of proteins. “Surprisingly, we discovered that LIN28 not only binds to the non-coding microRNAs, but can also bind directly to thousands of messenger RNAs,” says team member Melissa Wilbert. The discovery offers up a new perspective on the role this protein plays in the development and progression of disease and potentially new targets for pharmaceutical intervention.