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This week The Alchemist muses on what it's like to have heavy metal hair, learns how chemistry in a spin might point to a clearer understanding of life, wonders about supply and demand for rare and unavailable minerals, looks to fruit peel for cleaning up waste water, and plots a course to new materials. Finally, an award for an early career researcher to help us combat antibiotic resistance by recruiting non-pathogenic bacteria to make drugs for us.

Atomic absorption spectroscopy can quickly reveal concentrations of heavy metals in a sample of hair. A new precise approach developed by researchers in Poland could be applied to criminal investigations, medical diagnostics and epidemiology. Their latest work provides the baseline for child calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), lead (Pb), and cadmium (Cd) deposited in hair and reveals important differences between gender and metal content at different stages of childhood from infancy to adolescence.

Understanding how nature distinguishes between chiral molecules lies at the heart of biochemistry and perhaps even the origins of life, given how many biological molecules, from DNA to proteins and the processes in which they involved have a handedness. Ron Naaman of the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel, and his team have investigated the phenomenon of charge polarization to see whether it might be gently induced in a material using an external electric field and whether this would give rise to spin polarization in a chiral compound. However fleeting this might be, it could the key to chiral molecular recognition.

Our love of and need for ever-updating electronic gadgets and computers is putting mineral resources of rare but essential metals for components under increasing strain; so much is well known. Now, Saleem Ali of the University of Delaware suggests that global resource governance and sharing of geoscience data are needed to address this problem and allow us to secure future mineral supply. Ali writes on the problem in the journal Nature with experts from academia, government and industry from the USA, Europe, South Africa, Australia and South America. Ali points out that currently, “There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, but there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated." This situation must be remedied urgently.

Scientists in Mexico have demonstrated how fruit peels can be used to cleanup waste water, removing organic pollutants and heavy metals. The food industry produces tens of millions of tons of fruit peel annually that might be composted but often ends up in landfill with much of the rest of our waste. Now, researchers from the University of Granada and their colleagues have demonstrated an instant controlled pressure drop treatment for waste peel that converts it into an absorbent material that can soak up pollutants in water. The next step will be to take the laboratory-scale demonstration to a bigger scale for testing.

Computer modeling is allowing researchers at the Universities of Liverpool and Southampton in the UK to map how crystallize. “It is difficult to design at the atomic scale from scratch and the failure rate in new materials discovery is high," explains Southampton's Graeme Day. "As chemists and physicists trying to discover new materials, we often feel like explorers without reliable maps.” The new modeling approach couples the way in which molecules will crystallize to form a solid with the likelihood of specific properties.

Medicinal chemist Amanda Wolfe of the University of North Carolina Ashville is this year's recipient of the Cottrell Scholarship an award that comes with $100,000 prize from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA). The funding will support her research into new antibiotics over the next three years and is in recognition of her early career achievements. Wolfe's research follows an intriguing line: “In my lab, we’re working to isolate new antibiotics generated by bacteria themselves,” she explains. “Non-harmful bacteria produce their own antibiotics naturally to protect against invading bacteria, so we put two or more bacteria together to create competition, and then we isolate any chemicals they produce."