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This week The Alchemist gets of a whiff of the pig farm, learns how self-destructing bacteria can make anticancer drugs, muses on the notion of a material that likes no liquids, and finds out that an ice database is being created, how antibacterial polymer coatings are coming to the food industry. Anything but a flat reception this week for the pioneer of liquid crystal displays.

The prestigious Royal Medal of the UK's Royal Society this year goes to University of York chemist John Goodby for his pioneering work in liquid crystals which helped bring flat-screen displays for TVs, computers and other devices to the world. “I am overwhelmed to receive [this] award," Goodby says. "The successes of my research, particularly in the field of liquid crystals, would not have been possible without the support of my brilliant staff, students and academic and industrial colleagues, many of whom have worked with me for over the past 20 to 30 years."

Engineers at Aarhus University, in Denmark, have developed the first multivariate model not to be sniffed at for obtaining an objective assessment of the odor from pig farms that corroborates human experience. The system, which is based on data from proton-transfer-reaction mass spectrometry (PTR-MS), could be used to verify and validate the implementation of odor-remediating systems put in place by proprietors to make the local environment more pleasant for workers and neighbors alike. Air filters and alternative porcine housing design are possible technical solutions to the odor issue, but assessing their effectiveness currently relies on the rather subjective and human nose. A technical assessment that correlates with agreed levels of odor would provide a stronger business and legal footing.

Self-destructing bacteria that synthesize anticancer drugs and then burst open to release their payload when they reach a tumor have been developed by researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA. The approach which shows some of the promise of so-called "synthetic biology" could offer a therapeutic approach that minimizes damage to surrounding cells. Team leader Jeff Hasty wondered if a genetic “kill” circuit could be engineered to control a population of bacteria in vivo, thus minimizing their growth. “We wanted to deliver a significant therapeutic payload to the disease site,” he says.

Materials with superomniphobic surfaces developed by scientists at Colorado State University could be used to sort droplets of liquids based solely on that liquid's surface tension rather than particular chemical properties or other characteristics. A pristine layer of titanium patterned with titanium dioxide "nanoflowers" will repel oil, water, any liquid. Further patterning the surface through titania's photocatalytic properties under ultraviolet then allowed Arun Kota and colleagues to create a droplet sorter that works when the surface is inclined slightly so that a gradient of droplets will form depending on their surface tension as a sample mixture is drizzled on to the upper edge of the incline.

Researchers from the CNRS, the IRD and the Université Grenoble Alpes will be extracting ice samples from the Col du Dôme to storage in Antarctica so preserving the environmental-chemical conditions that existed when the ice formed for research by future generations. The project has the support of Jean Jouzel, a climatologist and Vice-Chair of the Nobel Prize winning IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). “In the coming decades, or even centuries, this ice archive will be invaluable, be it for entirely unprecedented scientific discoveries or for understanding local changes in the environment," he says.

New coatings that prevent the growth of bacteria and other microbes in a food preparation setting were reported at the recent "Where Science Feeds Innovation" symposium hosted by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). “Manufacturers already work diligently to keep their facilities clean, but we are creating materials that are even less likely to harbor bad bugs,” explains Cornell University's Julie Goddard whose team is designing polymer coatings to resist microbial adhesion and deactivate microbes that do manage to stick. She suggests the materials will be commercially available in the next few years.