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The Alchemist muses on whether or not life needs water, gets a little light relief, flexes on solar power, and learns about a geometric protein cage. In a galaxy, far, far away, we spot oxygen. Finally, an award for environmental awareness.

Follow the water, that's what those searching for life elsewhere in the universe must do. But, why can't a form of life exist that does not need water? One pointer has been revealed in the work of Dongping Zhong of The Ohio State University and colleagues who suggest that proteins cannot fold into their functional form in the absence of water, given that various hydrophobic and hydrophilic interactions underpin this process for all proteins. “We believe we now have strong direct evidence that on ultrafast time scales (picoseconds, or trillionths of a second), water modulates protein fluctuations,” Zhong explains. Of course, this still does not answer the question about extraterrestrial life, after all what if there are life forms that do not use proteins at all?

On reflection, it is possible to hold a single light-emitting molecule in a tiny cavity and have the photon it emits bounce back and so co-exist with the molecule in a light-molecule mixture. Such a state of affairs might be exploited in quantum devices of the future, according to work by researchers at the University of Cambridge, King’s College and Imperial College London. "It's like a hall of mirrors for a molecule, only spaced a hundred thousand times thinner than a human hair," explains Cambridge's Jeremy Baumberg. Many months of spectroscopy, data collection and statistical analysis revealed the first evidence of single-molecule strong coupling, on which the team reports in the journal Nature.

Thin and flexible photovoltaic materials, based on gallium arsenide, could be used to power a wide range of devices without the need to accommodate stiff and heavy solar panels. The materials might be used in future wearable technology, such as fitness trackers and smart glasses. “Our photovoltaic is about 1 micrometer thick,” explains engineer Jongho Lee of the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. The team stamped the cells directly onto a flexible substrate using “cold welding” and melted a top layer of photoresist that acted as a temporary adhesive which could subsequently be removed.

A highly stable icosahedral protein nano-cage has been designed and constructed by self-assembly thanks to work by a team at the University of Washington Institute of Protein Design. The icosahedral structure might find applications in targeted delivery of medicinal reagents to specific sites in the body or as a tiny reaction vessel for the synthesis of useful small molecules. “The ability to design proteins that self-assemble into precisely specified, robust, and highly order icosahedral structures,” the team writes, “would open the door to a new generation of protein containers with properties custom-made for applications of interest.”

Oxygen that existed a mere 700 million years after the Big Bang has been detected in the glow of a distant galaxy by ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. Astronomers from Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and European Southern Observatory, ESO, observed the gas of life in the galaxy known as SXDF-NB1006-2. Seeking heavy elements in the early universe will help us understand star formation, explains lead author Akio Inoue of Osaka Sangyo University. It also hints at how galaxies formed at that time and perhaps what caused the cosmic reionization.

as water pollutants is to receive this year's Rachel Carson Award from the US Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. The award is made every four years to a scientist or science writer who has made significant contributions to increase public awareness of potential threats to the natural world.