This issue of the American Chemical Society (ACS) News Service Weekly Press Package (PressPac) is a special edition with selections from scientific presentations scheduled for the ACS’ 235th national meeting in New Orleans. Our regular coverage of reports from ACS’ 36 major peer-reviewed journals and Chemical & Engineering News will resume with the April 16, 2008, edition.This information is intended for your personal use in news gathering and reporting and should not be distributed to others. Anyone using advance ACS News Service Weekly PressPac information for stocks or securities dealing may be guilty of insider trading under the federal Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
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Flash back three or four billion years — Earth is a hot, dry and lifeless place. All is still. Without warning, a meteor slams into the desert plains at over ten thousand miles per hour. With it, this violent collision may have planted the chemical seeds of life on Earth.
Scientists report that desert heat, a little water, and meteorite impacts may have been enough to cook up one of the first prerequisites for life: The dominance of “left-handed” amino acids, the building blocks of life on this planet. In an intriguing report, Ronald Breslow and colleagues describe how our amino acid signature came from outer space.
Chains of amino acids make up the protein found in people, plants, and all other forms of life on Earth. There are two orientations of amino acids, left and right, which mirror each other in the same way your hands do. This is known as “chirality.” In order for life to arise, proteins must contain only one chiral form of amino acids, left or right, Breslow notes. “If you mix up chirality, a protein’s properties change enormously. Life couldn’t operate with just random mixtures of stuff,” the researcher says.
With the exception of a few right-handed amino acid-based bacteria, left-handed “L-amino acids” dominate on earth. Amino acids delivered to Earth by meteorite bombardments left us with those left-handed protein units, Breslow and colleagues note.
Modern-day scientific Magellans and Columbus’s, exploring the uncharted seas at the fringes of the Periodic Table of the Elements, have landed on one long-sought island — the fabled Island of Stability, home of a new genre of superheavy chemical elements sought for more than three decades. In a new report, one of the captains of these expeditions into the unknown describes how researchers now are eying other islands on the more-distant fringes of the periodic table.
“Now that it has been shown that the ‘island of stability’ of superheavy elements exists, it would be interesting to predict the position of other islands,” says Yuri Oganessian, the scientist who led the study.
The discovery of superheavy elements at the beginning of this century by Oganessian’s group also confirmed the existence of the Island of Stability, a theoretical region of the periodic table, which distinguished chemist and Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg considered as one of the keystones of fundamental science. The “sea-and-island” analogy arose because these superheavy elements lie in an area of the periodic table where other elements are unstable, disappearing in much less than the blink of an eye. The superheavies, in contrast, are somewhat more stable than their shorter-lived cousins.
Oganessian’s group has teamed with researchers in California to synthesize five new elements (113, 114, 115, 116, and 118) over the past six years. Such superheavy elements do not exist in nature and can only be created by smashing lighter elements together at tremendous speeds obtained by means of highly sophisticated particle accelerators.
Mud may be coming to a medicine cabinet or pharmacy near you. Scientists in Arizona report that minerals from clay could form the basis of a new generation of inexpensive, highly-effective antimicrobials for fighting MRSA infections that are moving out of health care settings and into the community. These “superbugs” are increasingly resistant to multiple antibiotics and cause thousands of deaths each year.
Unlike conventional antibiotics that are often administered by injection or pills, the so-called “healing clays” could be used as rub-on creams or ointments to keep MRSA infections from spreading, the researchers say. The clays also show promise against a wide range of other harmful bacteria, including those that cause skin infections and food poisoning, the scientists add. Their study is one of the first to explore the antimicrobial activity of natural clays in detail.
Clays have been used for thousands of years as a remedy for infected wounds, indigestion, and other health problems, either by applying clay to the skin or eating it. Today, clays are commonly used at health spas in the form of mud baths and facials. Armed with new investigative tools, researchers are beginning to explore their health claims scientifically.
“Clays are little chemical drug-stores in a packet,” the researchers say. “They contain literally hundreds of elements. Some of these compounds are beneficial but others aren’t. Our goal is to find out what nature is doing and see if we can find a better way to kill harmful bacteria.” — MTS
Rising interest in “sustainable” fabrics is fostering a bamboo boom, in which bamboo-based fabrics are hitting the market as a leading eco-friendly textile. Chemists in Colorado now report solutions to two major problems with bamboo fabrics that may speed adoption of this amazing plant — which grows like Jack’s beanstalk without special care — in garments and other consumer products.
Subhash Appidi and Ajoy Sarkar discovered a way of making bamboo fabric that is resistant to the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation and has anti-bacterial properties.
Widely available in Japan, China, India and other countries, bamboo fabric is soft, durable and elastic. It hangs as gracefully as silk, and has an attractive, lustrous sheen. A leading option in the so-called “ethically produced” clothing market, bamboo is one of the world’s fastest growing plants, reaching maturity in about 3-4 years, compared to 25 to 70 years for commercial tree species in the U.S.
“Bamboo is environmentally friendly,” Appidi says. “Pesticides and other agents are necessary to grow most other natural fibers — there is nothing like that in bamboo production.” — AD
Nanotechnology is now available in a store near you. Valued for its antibacterial and odor-fighting properties, nanoparticle silver is becoming the star attraction in a range of products from socks to bandages to washing machines. But as silver’s benefits propel it to the forefront of consumer nanomaterials, scientists are recommending a closer examination of the unforeseen environmental and health consequences of nanosilver.
“The general public needs to be aware that there are unknown risks associated with the products they buy containing nanomaterials,” according to researchers Paul Westerhoff and Troy M. Benn.
Westerhoff and Benn report that ordinary laundering can wash off substantial amounts of the nanosilver particles from socks impregnated with the material. The Arizona researchers suggest that the particles, intended to prevent foot odor, could travel through a wastewater treatment system and enter natural waterways where they might have unwanted effects on aquatic organisms living in the water and possibly humans, too.
“This is the first report of anyone looking at the release of silver from this type of manufactured clothing product,” said the authors. — AD
Despite their reputation for deadly attacks on humans and pets, alligators are wiggling their way toward a new role as potential lifesavers in medicine, biochemists in Louisiana report. They found that proteins in gator blood may provide a source of powerful new antibiotics to help fight infections associated with diabetic ulcers, severe burns, and “superbugs” that are resistant to conventional medication.
Their study, described as the first to explore the antimicrobial activity of alligator blood in detail, found a range of other promising uses for the gator’s antibiotic proteins. Among them: combating Candida albicans yeast infections, which are a serious problem in AIDS patients and transplant recipients, who have weakened immune systems, the scientists say.
“We’re very excited about the potential of these alligator blood proteins as both antibacterial and antifungal agents,” says biochemist and study co-author Mark Merchant. “There’s a real possibility that you could be treated with an alligator blood product one day.”
In laboratory tests, the researchers report that tiny amounts of these protein extracts killed a wide range of bacteria, including MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), the deadly bacteria that are moving out of health care settings and into the community. These “superbugs” are increasingly resistant to multiple antibiotics and cause thousands of deaths each year. — MTS
Scientists in Texas report development of a highly dependable, rapid, and inexpensive new method for identifying the presence of gunshot residue (GSR). The test fills a GSR-detection gap that results from wider use of “green” — lead free — ammunition.
It requires only a single speck of GSR smaller than the period at the end of this sentence and could boost the accuracy of one of the most widely used tests employed at crime scenes involving gunplay, according to the researchers.
The new method extracts almost all components of gunpowder residue from particles about 15 times smaller than the width of a human hair, without the use of chemical reagents. After extraction, gas chromatography coupled with a nitrogen phosphorus detector is used to separate and identify the analytes.
“Gunshot residue tests are done in almost every case where a shooting has taken place,” says study co-author Garrett Lee Burleson. “The main focus of our research is to develop a method that will help credibility of gunshot residue evidence in court. You can get results with this test in 30 to 40 minutes. In addition you only need small amounts of evidence to run the test.” — JS
Chemists in Georgia report development of a fast new method to detect fake Tamiflu, the mainstay medication for preventing and treating bird flu. Tamiflu has become a target for counterfeiters as recent outbreaks of bird flu have increased public demand for supplies of just-in-case antiviral drugs to use in case of an epidemic of the deadly disease.
In a new report, Facundo M. Fernandez and colleagues describe use of a method called Desorption Electrospray Ionization Mass Spectrometry (DESI-MS) that can determine authenticity of large batches of Tamiflu samples up to 20 times faster than conventional methods.
“It’s a one-step process that doesn’t require any extensive sample preparation,” said Fernandez. Using DESI-MS, analysis of the Tamiflu powder yields results in less than one minute. The “gold standard” for gauging pharmaceutical quality control is a powerful but much slower method called high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), he said. Analysis by HPLC could take up to an hour.
The researchers describe their study as the first successful demonstration of DESI-MS’s use for Tamiflu screening. “This method is really targeted at screening large amounts of products” that might be expected during a pandemic of influenza, Fernandez said. “In case of a crisis, you wouldn’t be able to wait an hour per sample. You’d want to screen hundreds of samples per day.” — JS
Despite oil prices that hover around $100 a barrel, it may take at least 10 or more years of intensive research and development to reduce the cost of solar energy to levels competitive with petroleum, according to a report by an authority on the topic.
“Solar can potentially provide all the electricity and fuel we need to power the planet,” says chemist Harry Gray. “The Holy Grail of solar research is to use sunlight efficiently and directly to ’split’ water into its elemental constituents – hydrogen and oxygen – and then use the hydrogen as a clean fuel.”
Gray’s solar research has the goal of transforming the industrialized world from one powered by fossil fuels to one powered by sunlight. Some of his research focuses on converting sunlight to chemical fuels while other research focuses on generating electricity from sunlight and developing fuel cells.
Gray cites the vast potential of solar energy, noting that more energy from sunlight strikes the Earth in one hour than all of the energy consumed on the planet in one year. — MC
Amid concern that recipients of certain blood transfusions may risk infection with a deadly protein responsible for the human form of mad cow disease, researchers in Canada now report development of a special filter that quickly and effectively removes the protein from blood.
In addition to causing mad cow disease, these so-called prion proteins cause a variant form of the human neurological disorder, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Termed variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), its emergence triggered recent bans on exportation of beef from Europe. Variant CJD also can be transmitted in blood transfusions.
“The use of the device will significantly decrease the risk of acquiring vCJD through blood transfusions,” reports study co-author Patrick V. Gurgel. The device has been approved for use in Europe “and has no competitor at the moment,” said Gurgel.
About the size of a person’s hand, the device contains a specially-designed material that recognizes and binds to prions. “This technology adds a needed layer of protection against the transmission of vCJD through blood transfusion,” said Gurgel. “Our research shows that it works.”
The new filter can remove prions from red blood cell concentrate in less than an hour. Transfusions of red blood cells go to thousands of patients with chronic anemia resulting from kidney failure, cancer, gastrointestinal bleeding, and acute blood loss resulting from trauma. — MTS
Carbon dioxide removed from smokestack emissions in order to slow global warming in the future could become a valuable raw material for the production of DVDs, beverage bottles and other products made from polycarbonate plastics, chemists report.
In separate reports, Thomas E. MÜller and Toshiyasu Sakakura describe innovative ways of making polycarbonate plastics from CO2. Those processes offer consumers the potential for less expensive, safer and greener products compared to current production methods, the researchers agreed.
“Carbon dioxide is so readily available, especially from the smokestack of industries that burn coal and other fossil fuels,” MÜller said. “And it’s a very cheap starting material. If we can replace more expensive starting materials with CO2, then you’ll have an economic driving force.”
In another study, scientists from Japan also reported using CO2 as an alternative feedstock to change carbonates and urethanes into plastics and also battery components. Sakakura, the team’s lead researcher, noted that the new process is simpler and faster than another process developed by a Japanese firm.
MÜller pointed out that millions of tons of polycarbonates already are sold each year with the volume rising. Perhaps no other consumer product has such a great potential for use in removing carbon dioxide from the environment, he added. These hard, tough materials represent “intriguing sinks” for exhaust carbon dioxide and are the mainstay for producing eyeglass lenses, automotive headlamp lenses, DVDs and CDs, beverage bottles, and a spectrum of other consumer products. — JS
The spiraling use of corn for food and fuel is creating heightened concerns about contamination of this staple crop with deadly aflatoxin. Produced by certain fungi that grow on corn, this contaminant is a known human carcinogen that especially threatens food safety in the developing world and can potentially cause the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States each year.
Bruce Hammond says that aflatoxin is a potent liver carcinogen and source of other health concerns in humans and animals. Tightly regulated by the FDA, Hammond said threatening levels of the contaminant are kept out of the food supply in the United States. But in Africa and the developing world, poor regulation has made aflatoxin a significant food safety issue.
Hammond and others describe advances towards the production of corn less susceptible to aflatoxin contamination. The new varieties could contribute to the reduction of the worldwide threat of the deadly toxin, improve food quality in developing countries and increase corn yield for food and in the United States.
Growing conditions in Africa are well-suited for Aspergillus flavus, the fungus that produces aflatoxin. Environmental factors like drought, high temperatures, nitrogen availability and insect damage in plants allow the fungus to thrive. Fungal spores can enter the corn via cavities created by insects, and later germinate and produce mycotoxins, the problematic family of contaminants that includes aflatoxin. — AD
Mark your calendars for one of the year’s largest and most important scientific events — the 235th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), which will be held April 6-10, 2008, in New Orleans, La.
With more than 160,000 members in the United States and other countries, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society. About 12,000 scientists and others are expected for the event, which will include more than 9,000 reports on new discoveries in chemistry. Those reports span science’s horizons from astronomy to zoology and include a special focus on health, energy, food, environment, and alternative fuels.
In addition to coverage of breaking science news, the meeting provides an opportunity for independent reporting on disaster recovery efforts in the region prior to the June 1 start of the 2008 hurricane season.
For media registration, please click here. Housing reservations are now open for those who plan to attend the meeting. The ACS Press Center will be located in Room 206 of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. It will include a media workroom with staff to assist in arranging interviews, press conferences, wireless Internet access, telephones, computers, photocopy and fax services, and refreshments.
For reporters planning to cover the meeting from their home bases, the ACS Office of Communications will provide an expanded suite of resources, including press releases, non-technical summaries of research presentations, and access to news briefings.
The American Chemical Society — the world’s largest scientific society — is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.