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This week The Alchemist learns about a copper cat for brewing up better ethanol, learns how copper and other metals are involved in Type 1 diabetes, and sees how scientists are making Alzheimer's antibodies. In physical chemistry it turns out that crystals may form dropwise rather than layer upon layer, while droplets from the oceans come in two different forms that seed clouds in different ways. Finally, an award for science that looks at how nanoparticles penetrate cell membranes.

Despite endless political machinations the world over, the cause of sustainable energy is high on the scientific agenda. Now, a discovery at Stanford University could lead to a new way to make ethanol for fuel without having to grow fuel crops, such as corn, from which ethanol and thence biofuels are derived. Thomas Jaramillo and colleagues have used a specific form of copper (copper 751 as opposed to copper 100 or 111) as a room temperature catalytic electrode to combine carbon dioxide and water electrochemically without making all the byproducts of the copper 100 and copper 111 systems, such as propanal and methanol. The work is also informing the fundamental science of metal surfaces and the team will move on to look at nickel soon.

Type 1 diabetes is a major cause of debilitation and premature death. Treating the disorder is complicated and costly. Now, a team in Brazil is using atomic absorption spectrometry and other techniques to look for putative biomarkers among the metals copper, magnesium, selenium, and zinc to correlate their concentrations with the patient metalloproteome and perhaps help devise novel treatments that modulate plasma glucose levels using pharmaceutical or other controls of the levels of these metals. In addition to the AAS work, the team looked at different expression rates for pertinent proteins using electrospray ionization-tandem mass spectrometry (ESI-MS/MS) after tryptic digestion. The ESI-MS/MS provided characterizations of 35 different proteins, indicating alpha-1- macroglobulin and haptoglobulin as potential candidates as biomarkers for diabetes treated with insulin.

A team from the University of Cambridge, UK, has designed novel antibodies that can target the protein deposited in the brain and associated with the terminal condition of Alzheimer's disease. The antibodies can halt formation of these proteins, which otherwise cause plaques to be deposited in the brain which impedes cognitive functions, destroys memories and causes behavioral and physical problems for patients. The team used computer-based methods to develop the antibodies to home in on misfolded proteins, known as amyloid-beta, present in all cases of Alzheimer's disease although only seen in post mortem confirmation of the disease. The preliminary tests in the laboratory have been carried out on the nematode worm, and show almost complete elimination of the pathogenic proteins.

The textbook explanation for crystal growth usually invokes layer upon layer of material being deposited from solution on a seed crystal. Now, researchers at the University of Konstanz have observed a preliminary stage for the compound glutamic acid that contradicts this classical principal of growth. They see nano-clusters forming crystal growth rather than individual ions or molecules precipitating from solution. The team suggests that these nanoclusters are droplets of liquid but have not yet proved that. The effect is already known for macromolecules but not for much simpler small molecules.

Aerosols of sea spray thrown into the air lead to the seeding of clouds over approximately 75% of the earth's surface. They are generated by "film" or "jet" droplets but the chemical distinction between the two could help us create a better model of climate change. Researchers from the University of California San Diego and elsewhere have identified the differences in the chemical make-up of sea spray particles ejected from the ocean by breaking waves. “It’s the first time anyone has shown that drops from seawater have different composition due to the production mechanism,” said Prather. “We are uncovering how ocean biology influences the physical production processes creating sea spray aerosol," explains Kimberly Prather.

The Otto Hahn Medal from the Max Planck Society (MPG) this year goes to Jaime Agudo-Canalejo for his outstanding doctoral work on the curvature elasticity of fluid membranes, which he carried out at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces under Reinhard Lipowsky. The work has implications for understanding how nanoparticles might penetrate cell membranes. Such work has implications not only for understanding the risks of nanoparticles to health but could also lead to novel ways to deliver drugs directly to cells for a range of diseases. The award comes with a monetary sum of 7500 Euros and is intended to motivate especially gifted junior scientists and researchers.