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ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: Wed Oct 24 16:42:03 EDT 2007

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News Items in this Edition

“Microplastics” may pose previously unrecognized pollution threat

Microscopic particles of plastic debris that litter marine environments may pose a previously unrecognized threat to marine animals by attracting, holding, and transporting water pollutants, a new study by British

researchers is reporting. It is scheduled for the Nov. 15 issue of ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology, a semi-monthly journal.

Emma L. Teuten and colleagues note long-standing awareness that large pieces of plastic waste, including cargo wrapping sheet plastic and six-pack rings, can sicken and kill fish, birds, turtles and other animals. Seawater eventually breaks down these large pieces into microplastics, which can adsorb high levels of PCBs and other toxins. Microplastics also enter the environment directly from use as “scrubbers” in household and industrial cleaning products. However, little research has been done on the environmental impact of these tiny, pollution-packed pellets.

In the new study, researchers exposed several different types and sizes of microplastics to phenanthrene, a major marine pollutant, and used a model to predict their effects on a group of sediment-dwelling marine worms (lugworms). The scientists found that addition of just a few millionths of a gram of contaminated microplastics to the sediments caused an 80% increase in phenanthrene accumulation in the tissues of the worms. Since lugworms are at the base of the food chain, phenanthrene from microplastics would be passed on and biomagnified in other marine animals. The finding suggests that microplastics are an important agent in the transport of pollutants in marine organisms and throughout the global environment, the researchers say.

A Rosetta Stone for traditional Chinese medicine

Scientists in the United Kingdom have “decoded” the inscrutable language of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), revealing its strong chemical foundation in a way that may help scientists mine age-old Chinese medicines to develop tomorrow’s new drugs. Their study is scheduled for the Nov./Dec. issue of ACS’ bi-monthly Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling.

David J. Barlow, Thomas M. Ehrman, and Peter J. Hylands point out that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) — regarded by many Western experts as an archaic system doomed to extinction 50 years ago — has undergone a “remarkable renaissance” in recent years. However, the arcane language used to describe categories of medication in TCM has hindered effective understanding of one of the most developed and mature systems of alternative medicine in existence.

To overcome that barrier, the researchers analyzed patterns among 8411 compounds from 240 Chinese herbs in relation to the categories found in traditional Chinese medicine. Organizing their findings in a kind of herbal “map,” their results reveal that many categories in Chinese medicine are amenable to translation to Western terminology. TCM’s “fire poison” group, for example, is comparable to today’s family of anti-inflammatory medicines. Now, future researchers will better understand the chemical basis of remedies that have been in use for thousands of years, the study indicated.

“This is likely to be of benefit both in the search for new drugs and, equally significantly, in understanding how Chinese medicine works,” say the authors.

Boiled peanuts pack big antioxidant punch

Boiled peanuts, a regional treat from the southern United States, may be as healthy as they are delicious. In the Oct. 31 issue of ACS’ Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Alabama scientists report that boiling these legumes imbues them with more antioxidants than roasted peanuts or peanut butter.

Peanuts are usually consumed as processed products, mainly as peanut butter and roasted nuts. Studies have shown that peanuts contain powerful antioxidants called isoflavones which may reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes and coronary heart diseases. Although the effect of processing on the isoflavone content of legumes has been extensively studied, there has never been such a study on peanuts.

Lloyd Walker and colleagues evaluated the effect of boiling and oil- and dry-roasting on peanuts. They found that boiled peanuts — South Carolina’s official snack food — contained up to four times more isoflavones than raw peanuts or oil- and dry-roasted ones.

Toward a comprehensive test for dissolved phosphorous

A new method for measuring certain forms of phosphorus — the nutrient often responsible for algae blooms that devastate fish populations in lakes — has identified a major but previously overlooked source of the phosphorus that may heavily contribute to water quality problems, researchers from Australia and the United Kingdom are reporting. The study is scheduled for the Nov. 1 issue of ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology, a bi-weekly journal.

In the study, Phil Monbet and colleagues point out that two types of dissolved phosphorus, organic and inorganic, contribute to eutrophication, the overgrowth of algae. Presently, however, scientists and water pollution control officials rarely measure or pay attention to dissolved organic phosphorus (DOP).

The new procedure recognizes that enzymes present in aquatic environments can convert DOP into inorganic phosphorus, releasing it to fuel algal growth. It overcomes the limitations of current phosphorus measurements, providing more accurate data on the potential of discharges from sewage treatment plants to contribute to eutrophication. “This work quantitatively highlights the potential of DOP to contribute to eutrophication in natural waters as a result of enzyme hydrolysis,” the report states.

Unlocking the secrets of ripening for better tasting fruits and veggies

Researchers worldwide are learning to control the key chemical processes involved in ripening, a development that will lead to longer lasting, better tasting tomatoes, apples, and other fruits and vegetables, according to an article scheduled for the Oct. 29 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, ACS’ weekly newsmagazine.

In the article, C&EN associate editor Sarah Everts explains what scientists know about the phenomenon of ripening and how they are leveraging that knowledge to optimize the flavor, aroma and shelf-life of fruits and vegetables. That knowledge is emerging at a time of growing consumer demand for high-quality produce available year-round and in virtually any location. Unfortunately, good taste and long shelf-life are often incompatible, but researchers are getting closer to this goal as they untangle the networks of hormones, genes and proteins that control fruit ripening, Everts notes.

The article points out, for instance, that ethylene has a profound effect on fruit development. Other important factors that influence ripening include sunlight and temperature, while some influential hormones probably remain to be discovered, the article states. “This research will aid the world-wide produce industry, which exports some 65 million tons of fresh fruits and vegetables annually. The U.S. retail produce industry alone made some $56 billion in sales in 2006,” Everts writes.

In a separate C&EN article and photo spread, managing editor Ivan Amato discusses the psychology and environmental impact of cigarette smokers who discard used cigarette butts in public places — 50 million pounds worth annually in the United States alone.

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