ChemWeb Newsletter

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This week, The Alchemist learns why cats taste so bitter and not at all sweet. How to copy a white beetle to make a blacker than black material. The protein that lets bacteria make rocket fuel. Frozen water that's ice, but not as we know it. The molecular hoverboards of the future. And, finally, a carbon-cutting grant.




Most cat owners will know that their moggy's tongue has a peculiar texture but until new work from the Monell Chemical Senses Center none could have known that the feline glossal organ of taste has at least seven functional bitter taste receptors. Gary Beauchamp and colleagues explain that a sense of taste evolved so that animals could make the critical decision of whether a potential food is nutritionally advantageous or possibly harmful, sugars taste nice and sweet whereas toxins are often bitter tasting. Cats, however, cannot taste sweet things perhaps because they are exclusively carnivorous and never choose to eat sugary things like fruits and vegetables. But, if bitter detectors are present to detect toxins in plants why didn't cats lose the ability to taste bitter foods too? It could be that cats retained the ability to detect lots of potentially harmful bitter compounds on the skin and in the guts of their prey. The work could explain why cats are notoriously picky eaters and help manufacturers improve the recipes for pet food.





A perfect black body exists only as a theoretical construct, thermodynamically perfect entity that absorbs all incident energy and can re-emit that energy without loss. In biomimetic work, a team from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia have taken inspiration from what seems to be the polar opposite, the whiter than white Cyphochilus beetle. By exploiting their understanding of why this beetle is so white the team has used nanoscopic "lollipops" to create a surface that traps incident radiation. "We are employing these nanoparticles to ideate new devices for water desalination and the production of solar fuels," team leader Andrea Fratalocchi told us.





Anaerobic ammonium-oxidizing (anammox) bacteria can convert ammonium ions into nitrogen gas in the absence of oxygen going via hydrazine, perhaps most well known as a rocket fuel. Now, researchers at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and their international colleagues have obtained a crystal structure of the protein central to this process, hydrazine synthase. This structure might now allow them to prove one way or another whether or not hydrazine synthesis occurs in two steps at two active sites. Such work is not only fundamental science but could ultimately lead to new biocatalytic processes for laboratory-scale or even industrial reactions.





A new phase of superionic ice could exist under the particular conditions that exist on the planets Neptune and Uranus, according to theoretical research by at team at Princeton University. Chemist Salvatore Torquato describes superionic ice as an "in-between state of matter that we can’t really relate to anything we know". Unlike water or regular ice, superionic ice is made up of water molecules that have dissociated into charged atoms called ions, with the oxygen ions locked in a solid lattice and the hydrogen ions moving like the molecules in a liquid. He and his team describe details in the journal Nature Communications.





Computer simulations, by a team at University College London, of tiny droplets of water interacting with graphene suggests a new approach to quickly moving molecules around a surface. The simulations show that molecules can "surf" across the surface whilst being carried by the moving ripples of graphene at least ten times faster than expected. Team member Ming Ma suggests that the work has "uncovered an unexpected result that may well be at the root of the promised performance of graphene in filters and sensors."





£3 million (about $5 million) in funding from the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will be matched by funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) to help scientists at the University of Southampton, UK to develop technology for low-carbon cities across the UK and China. The announcement coincides with the State visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the UK in October. The University’s Sustainable Energy Research Group (SERG) will collaborate with Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology to investigate how to reduce the carbon footprint of existing technology and to search for alternative energy sources and reduce energy demands. The cities of Portsmouth and Xian will be the focus of case studies.