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ACS News Service Weekly PressPac: April 29, 2009

Note to Journalists and Other Viewers

Here is the latest American Chemical Society (ACS) Office of Public Affairs Weekly PressPac with news from ACS’ 34 peer-reviewed journals and Chemical & Engineering News.

This information is intended for your personal use in news gathering and reporting and should not be distributed to others. Anyone using advance ACS Office of Public Affairs Weekly PressPac information for stocks or securities dealing may be guilty of insider trading under the federal Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

Please cite the individual journal, or the American Chemical Society, as the source of this information.

News Items in this Edition

Gene-altering compounds released from forest fires

Scientists in Washington State are reporting the first discovery of potent mutagenic substances in smoke from forest fires that often sweep through huge stands of Ponderosa pine in the western United States and Canada. Their discovery of these mutagens — substances that can damage the genetic material DNA — is scheduled for the June 1 edition of ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology, a semi-monthly journal.

In the study, Julia Laskin and colleagues note that forest fires long have been recognized as major sources of organic compounds containing nitrogen. But their research is the first to show that the nitrogen compounds exist as alkaloids, which are naturally occurring mutagens that are produced by trees and other plants.

Ponderosa pine trees, the researchers note, often grow in droughty areas and in forests subject to large-scale outbreaks of fires, and have high levels of alkaloids in their needles. Fires help to transfer alkaloids from needles into tiny particles that can be then transported through the air. Noting that the alkaloids can be transported long distances, the scientists say that fires involving Ponderosa pines could have adverse human health effects. — JS

New computer program promises to be “Rosetta Stone” for chemical names

In an advance that will help speed global development of new drugs and patenting of new commercial and industrial products, a scientist in New Mexico is reporting development of the first computer program that can quickly and accurately translate complex chemical names from one language into another. The study is in the current edition of ACS’ Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling, a bi-monthly publication.

Roger Sayle notes that a universal system for naming chemicals does exist. However, translating chemical names from one language into another can be a complex task due to differences in spacing, capitalization, spelling, and other factors. Proper translation from English to Chinese, for example, often requires the use of specially trained chemists who are fluent in both languages. Although scientists have tried for decades to create computer software for quickly translating chemical names into other languages, there’s been limited progress in this area until now, Sayle notes.

Sayle reports development of a new version of a powerful computer program called Lexichem that can perform those translations. The study describes how that program translated a group of more than 250,000 chemical names from English to seven other languages (and back) with a 98 percent accuracy rate. — MTS

Toward giving artificial cells the ability for sustained movement

Scientists in Japan are reporting an advance toward giving artificial cells another hallmark of life — the ability to tap an energy source and use it to undergo sustained movement. Their study, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, describes the first “self-propelled” oil droplets (used as a model for research on artificial cells) that can run on a chemical “fuel.”

Tadashi Sugawara and Taro Toyota and other colleagues note in the new study that scientists have tried for years to find a method for producing oil droplets that undergo controlled movement from one point to another. Despite identifying several promising approaches, researchers have never found an ideal method that they can easily control.

The new study describes development of oil droplets equipped with chemical “engines” — highly reactive catalysts — that provide self-propelled motion in the presence of a chemical “fuel.” This fuel consists of special substances that react in the presence of the catalyst. When the researchers placed droplets in water containing the fuel, the droplets moved in a controlled fashion toward areas with the highest concentration of fuel. The researchers also say that when another droplet comes close the newcomer it is trapped by the trail of wastes released by the first droplet. Then the two move together in a “communicative” manner. When the fuel was exhausted, the droplets slowed down and stopped. The study serves as a long-awaited blueprint for designing similar locomotion systems in artificial cells, the scientists say. — MTS

Mercury levels in Arctic seals may be linked to global warming

Researchers in Canada are reporting for the first time that high mercury levels in certain Arctic seals appear to be linked to vanishing sea ice caused by global warming. Their study, a new insight into the impact of climate change on Arctic marine life, is scheduled for the May 1 issue of ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology, a semi-monthly journal.

Gary Stern and colleagues note in the new study that Canadian Arctic ringed seals, like many Arctic marine animals, have relatively high levels of mercury. However, researchers have never determined how these levels are linked to sea ice extent and the resulting composition of arctic cod and other prey containing mercury available to ringed seals.

The scientists analyzed the mercury content in muscle samples collected from ringed seals between 1973 and 2007. They then compared the levels to the length of the so-called “summer ice-free season,” a warm period marked by vanishing sea ice in the seals’ habitat. They found that the seals accumulated more mercury during both short (2 months) and long (5 months) ice-free seasons and postulate that this is related to the seals’ food supplies. Higher seal mercury concentrations may follow relatively short ice-free seasons due to consumption of older, more highly contaminated Arctic cod while relatively long ice-free seasons may promote higher pelagic productivity and thus increased survival and abundance of Arctic cod with the overall result of more fish consumption and greater exposure to mercury. Longer ice-free seasons resulting from a warming Arctic may therefore result in higher mercury levels in ringed seal populations as well as their predators (polar bears and humans).— MTS

“Stinky” drywall imported from China raises health and safety concerns

Homeowners throughout the nation are complaining of stinky odors, copper pipe and wire corrosion, and respiratory problems in an ongoing crisis that officials say is linked to drywall imported from China. An article on this topic is scheduled for the May 4 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, ACS’ weekly newsmagazine.

C&EN associate editor Bethany Halford explains in the article that drywall — also known as wallboard, plasterboard, and gypsum board — is composed of a gypsum, a chalk-like material. Spurred by complaints from homeowners that their homes smell like rotten eggs, investigators have traced the problem to drywall imported from China starting in 2004. But officials do not know the exact chemicals that are causing the problem and how they got into the drywall.

Researchers suspect that the odors are caused by certain sulfur-containing substances in the drywall. Released as gases, these substances can corrode copper pipes, wiring, and air conditioning coils, the article notes. Although officials believe that the gases do not pose a serious health threat, many homeowners with the drywall have reported nosebleeds, sinus problems, and respiratory infections. Several government agencies are now investigating the exact health effects caused by exposure to these gases as well as the electrical safety issues related to corrosion of copper wiring.

Journalists’ Resources

  • Press releases, briefings, and more from ACS’ 237th National Meeting
    http://www.eurekalert.org/acsmeet.php
    http://www.ustream.tv/channel/acslive
  • Must-reads from C&EN: The mystery of “natural” foods
    More and more people are willing to pay higher prices for less processed food with more wholesome ingredients. But fuzzy and inconsistent food labeling laws continue to confuse consumers who shop for “natural” or “Organic” foods. With the No. 1 category of new food products in 2008 including those items labeled “natural,” this issue is attracting more and more attention. To receive a free copy of this C&EN story about what is –– and what is not –– being done about clarifying the term “natural” in labeling, send an e-mail to m_bernstein@acs.org.
  • ACS pressroom blog

The American Chemical Society’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) has created a new pressroom blog to highlight prominent research from ACS’ 34 journals. The blog includes daily commentary on the latest news from the weekly PressPac, including video and audio segments from researchers on topics covering chemistry and related sciences, including nanotechnology, food science, materials science and the environment. The pressroom blog will also cover updates on ACS’ awards, the national meetings and other general news from the world’s largest scientific society.

  • Bytesize Science blog
    Educators and kids, put on your thinking caps: The American Chemical Society has a new blog for Bytesize Science, a science podcast for kids of all ages. The Bytesize blog contains entertaining video podcasts and audio episodes of the latest and greatest news from the frontiers of chemistry, including a video detailing a discovery about the bug-eating pitcher plant and an audio episode on a new use for magnolia tree bark.
  • ACS satellite pressroom: Daily news blasts on Twitter
    The American Chemical Society’s Office of Public Affairs (OPA) new satellite press room has quickly become one of the most popular science news sites on Twitter with daily updates on the latest research from ACS’ 34 peer-reviewed journals and other news, including links to compelling podcast series, information on the upcoming 237th National Meeting, and the latest recipients of ACS’ national awards. To receive press room updates, create a free account at https://twitter.com/signup. Then visit http://twitter.com/ACSpressroom and click the ‘join’ button beneath the press room logo.
  • ACS Press Releases

General science press releases on a variety of chemistry-related topics.

  • From Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS)
    CAS - Science Connections
    is a series of articles that showcases the value of CAS databases in light of important general-interest science and technology news. Ranging in topics from fruit flies to Nobel Prize winners, the CAS - Science Connections series points to the CAS databases for a more complete understanding of the latest news.
  • Save the Date: Green Chemistry conference on sustainability begins June 23
    Jean-Michel Cousteau, noted explorer, film-producer and environmentalist, and Len Sauers, Ph.D., Vice President of Global Sustainability for The Procter & Gamble Company, are the featured keynote speakers at the upcoming 13th annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in June in College Park, Md. The focus of this year’s conference, June 23-25 at the Marriott Inn and Conference Center, is on progress made toward research objectives identified in the National Academy of Sciences’ 2006 report, “Sustainability in the Chemical Industry: Grand Challenges and Research Needs.” Sauers will address the convention on June 24, Cousteau on June 25. For more information on the conference, please visit www.gcande.org.

For Wired Readers

  • Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions
    Don’t miss this special series of ACS podcasts on some of the 21st Century’s most daunting challenges, and how cutting-edge research in chemistry matters in the quest for solutions. This sweeping panorama of challenges includes topics such as providing a hungry, thirsty world with ample supplies of safe food and clean water; developing alternatives to petroleum to fuel the global economy; preserving the environment and assuring a sustainable future for our children; and improving human health. Launched in 2008, this award-winning series continues in 2009 with updates and fresh content. Subscribe at iTunes or listen and access other resources at the ACS web site www.acs.org/GlobalChallenges.
  • Bytesize Science, a podcast for young listeners
    Bytesize Science is a science podcast for kids of all ages that aims to entertain as much as it educates. Subscribe to Bytesize Science in iTunes. No iTunes? No problem. Listen to latest episodes of Bytesize Science in your web browser
  • Science Elements: An ACS Science News Podcast
    The ACS Office of Public Affairs is podcasting PressPac contents in order to make cutting-edge scientific discoveries from ACS journals available to a broad public audience at no charge. Subscribe to Science Elements using iTunes. Listen to the latest episodes of Science Elements in your web browser.

More ACS News


PressPac information is intended for your personal use in news gathering and reporting and should not be distributed to others. Anyone using advance PressPac information for stocks or securities dealing may be guilty of insider trading under the federal Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

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.