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’ 238th National Meeting in Washington D.C. Our regular coverage of reports from ACS’ 34 major peer-reviewed journals and Chemical & Engineering News will resume with the August 26, 2009, edition.
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Attention all smokeless tobacco users! It’s time to banish the comforting notion that snuff and chewing tobacco are safe because they don’t burn and produce inhalable smoke like cigarettes. A study that looked beyond the well-researched tobacco hazards, nitrosamines and nicotine, has discovered a single pinch –– the amount in a portion –– of smokeless tobacco exposes the user to the same amount of another group of dangerous chemicals as the smoke of five cigarettes.
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The research on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in smokeless tobacco was reported here today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). It adds to existing evidence that smokeless contains two dozen other carcinogens that cause oral and pancreatic cancers, the scientists say.
“This study once again clearly shows us that smokeless tobacco is not safe,” said Irina Stepanov, Ph.D., who led the research team. “Our finding places snuff on the same list of major sources of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as smoking cigarettes.” PAHs are widespread environmental contaminants formed as a result of incomplete burning of wood, coal, fat in meat, and organic matter. PAHs form, for instance, during the grilling of burgers, steaks and other meat.
The findings come in the midst of a rise in both marketing and consumption of smokeless tobacco, which many consumers regard as less dangerous than other forms of tobacco. Estimates suggest that sales of moist snuff in the United States have doubled since the 1980s.
Will the universe expand outward for all of eternity and end in a vast, dark, cold, sterile, diffuse nothingness? Or will the “Big Bang” — the gargantuan explosion that formed the universe 14 billion years ago — end in the “Big Crunch?” Planets, stars and galaxies all hurtle inward and collapse into an incredibly hot, dense mass a billion times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. And then … KA-BOOOOM!!! Another Big Bang and another universe forms and hurtles outward, eventually leading to new iterations of the Sun, the Earth, and you? A special three-day symposium focusing on the weird subatomic particles that could help answer those compelling questions begins here today through August 18 at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
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Titled “The Chemistry and Physics of Neutrino Experiments,” it will include almost two dozen reports on experiments to understand what Nobel Laureate Frederick Reines once termed “the most tiny quantity of reality ever imagined by a human being.” Neutrinos ("small neutral ones") are among the subatomic, or elementary, particles that make up all matter. They have no electric charge, virtually no mass, and pass through ordinary matter without causing any disruption. Most neutrinos traveling through Earth come from the Sun, and trillions of solar electron neutrinos pass through every person each second. Although those properties make neutrinos difficult to detect, detecting and understanding them are key scientific pursuits, partly because of the implications for cosmology.
“The neutrino has the smallest observed mass for any elementary particle, but they appear in such astonishing numbers in the universe that they are a large portion of its mass,” said Steven Elliott, Ph.D. He is a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “At the moment, neutrinos may be massive enough to account for more mass in the universe than all stars combined.”
After searching for more than 50 years, scientists finally have discovered a number of new mosquito repellents that beat DEET, the gold standard for warding off those pesky, sometimes disease-carrying insects. The stuff seems like a dream come true. It makes mosquitoes buzz off three times longer than DEET, the active ingredient in many of today’s bug repellents. It does not have the unpleasant odor of DEET. And it does not cause DEET’s sticky-skin sensation.
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But there’s a fly in the ointment: The odds may be stacked against any of the new repellents finding a place on store shelves this year or next — or ever.
Ulrich Bernier, Ph.D., lead researcher for the repellent study, said the costly, time-consuming pre-market testing and approval process is a hurdle that will delay availability of the repellents, which were discovered last year. The results of his team’s work were presented today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) by Maia Tsikoli, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher working with Bernier.
“Commercial availability of topical repellents can take years and a significant investment to achieve that end goal,” Bernier said. “The cost will be several hundred thousand dollars. Once you determine that the repellent works through some screening process, we then have to go through a toxicological hazard evaluation involving numerous toxicological tests.”
Provided the repellents continue to work well when tested in the laboratory on human skin, and if they pass the battery of toxicological tests, they would still face a series of tests to prove their effectiveness in making mosquitoes bug off, Bernier said”
Cleaning oily smears from kitchen countertops, mirrors, garage floors, and other surfaces with plain water — rather than strong detergents or smelly solvents — may seem like pure fantasy. But scientists in Indiana today describe what they believe to be a simple and effective state-of-the-art oil stain remover. They have developed a new coating for glass, plastics, and a range of other materials that would enable consumers to wipe away those pesky oils with plain water.
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Their report at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) points out that the same coatings can be added to common window cleaning sprays and used to prevent bathroom mirrors, automobile windshields and other surfaces from fogging up.
“You add water, and the oil just comes right off like magic,” said Jeffrey Youngblood, Ph.D., lead researcher on the project. “These are eco-friendly coatings — environmentally ‘green’ in the sense that they eliminate the need for harsh detergents and solvents in settings ranging from home kitchens to industrial machine shops that must contend with heavy oil spills.”
The materials could be used in a range of consumer and industrial products, Youngblood said. They include household cleaners, easy-to-clean paints, water filters that separate water from oil, sealants for concrete floors and walls that repel oil in home garages and auto repair shops. In addition, anti-fog coatings could be used on windshields or eyewear, including everyday lenses and fog-free scuba masks.
Mention rosemary, thyme, clove, and mint and most people think of a delicious meal. Think bigger…acres bigger. These well-known spices are now becoming organic agriculture’s key weapons against insect pests as the industry tries to satisfy demands for fruits and veggies among the growing portion of consumers who want food produced in more natural ways.
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In a study presented here today at the American Chemical Society’s 238th National Meeting, scientists in Canada are reporting exciting new research on these so-called “essential oil pesticides” or “killer spices.” These substances represent a relatively new class of natural insecticides that show promise as an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional pesticides while also posing less risk to human and animal health, the researcher says.
“We are exploring the potential use of natural pesticides based on plant essential oils — commonly used in foods and beverages as flavorings,” says study presenter Murray Isman, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia. These new pesticides are generally a mixture of tiny amounts of two to four different spices diluted in water. Some kill insects outright, while others repel them.
The natural pesticides have several advantages. Unlike conventional pesticides, these “killer spices” do not require extensive regulatory approval and are readily available. An additional advantage is that insects are less likely to evolve resistance — the ability to shrug off once-effective toxins — Isman says. They’re also safer for farm workers, who are at high risk for pesticide exposure, he notes.
Deep in Africa’s Kalahari Desert lies the “Devil’s claw,” a plant that may hold the key to effective treatments for arthritis, tendonitis and other illnesses that affect millions each year. Unfortunately, years of drought have pushed the Devil’s claw toward extinction, so scientists are scrambling to devise new ways to produce the valuable medicinal chemicals of the Devil’s claw and other rare plants.
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One group of scientists reported a major advance toward that goal here today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). They described the first successful method of producing the active ingredients in Devil’s claw — ingredients that have made the Devil’s claw a sensation in alternative medicine in Europe. Their technique may eventually lead to the development of “biofactories” that could produce huge quantities of rare plant extracts quickly and at little cost.
Milen I. Georgiev, Ph.D., who delivered the report, pointed out that for thousands of years, native populations in Southern Africa have used the Devil’s claw as a remedy for a huge number of ailments, including fever, diarrhea and blood diseases. Today, there are dozens of medicinal and herbal products around the world that are based on chemicals derived from the Devil’s claw.
In particular, studies suggest that two chemicals — the so-called iridoid glycosides harpagoside and harpagide — may have beneficial effects in the treatment of degenerative rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, tendonitis, and other conditions, Georgiev said.
The first dry powder inhalable vaccine for measles is moving toward clinical trials next year in India, where the disease still sickens millions of infants and children and kills almost 200,000 annually, according to a report presented here today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
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Robert Sievers, Ph.D., who leads the team that developed the dry-powder vaccine, said it’s a perfect fit for use in back-roads areas of developing countries. Those areas often lack electricity for refrigeration, clean water, and sterile needles that are needed to administer traditional liquid vaccines.
“Childhood vaccines that can be inhaled and delivered directly to mucosal surfaces have the potential to offer significant advantages over injection,” said Sievers. “Not only might they reduce the risk of infection from HIV, hepatitis, and other serious diseases due to unsterilized needles, they may prove more effective against disease.
“Many serious infections, such as the measles virus, can enter the body through inhalation. Measles vaccine dry powders have the potential to effectively vaccinate infants, children and adults by inhalation, avoiding the problems associated with liquid vaccines delivered by injection,” he added.
You probably have cocaine in your wallet, purse, or pocket. Sound unlikely or outrageous? Think again! In what researchers describe as the largest, most comprehensive analysis to date of cocaine contamination in banknotes, scientists are reporting that cocaine is present in up to 90 percent of paper money in the United States, particularly in large cities such as Baltimore, Boston, and Detroit. The scientists found traces of cocaine in 95 percent of the banknotes analyzed from Washington, D.C., alone.
Presented here today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, the new study suggests that cocaine abuse is still widespread and may be on the rise in some areas. It could help raise public awareness about cocaine use and lead to greater emphasis on curbing its abuse, the researchers say.
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The scientists tested banknotes from more than 30 cities in five countries, including the U.S., Canada, Brazil, China, and Japan, and found “alarming” evidence of cocaine use in many areas. The U.S. and Canada had the highest levels, with an average contamination rate of between 85 and 90 percent, while China and Japan had the lowest, between 12 and 20 percent contamination. The study is the first report about cocaine contamination in Chinese and Japanese currencies, they say.
“To my surprise, we’re finding more and more cocaine in banknotes,” said study leader Yuegang Zuo, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth. Zuo says that the high percentage of contaminated U.S. currency observed in the current study represents nearly a 20 percent jump in comparison to a similar study he conducted two years ago. That earlier study indicated that 67 percent of bills in the U.S. contained traces of cocaine.
In an advance toward the first portable device for detecting human bodies buried in disasters and at crime scenes, scientists today report early results from a project to establish the chemical fingerprint of death. Speaking here at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), they said a profile of the chemicals released from decomposing bodies could also lead to a valuable new addition to the forensic toolkit: An electronic device that could determine the time elapsed since death quickly, accurately and onsite.
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Today, cadaver dogs are the gold standard for detecting and recovering bodies in earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. “These dogs are highly effective, but it takes lots of time, expense and manpower to train them. If there was a device that was as effective for a fraction of the cost, that would be something worth pursuing,” says Dan Sykes, Ph.D., collaborating on this research with graduate student Sarah A. Jones.
To develop such a device, scientists must identify what gases are released as bodies decompose under a variety of natural environmental conditions, Jones noted. In addition, they must detail the time sequence in which those odorant chemicals are released in the hours and days after death. “What we’re looking for is the profile of what gases are released when we die, as well as how the environment and the manner in which we die affects this profile,” Jones says.
You’ve heard of Louis Pasteur and George Washington Carver, no doubt. And probably Joseph Priestley, one of the founders of modern chemistry. Names like Antoine Lavoisier, John Dalton, and Amadeo Avogadro may even bring a twinkle of recognition to the eye for their famous roles in establishing chemistry as a modern science. But what about Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (“Rhazes”)? Or Jabir ibn Hayyan (“Geber”)? Or Abu Jusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi. Huh?
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“You should know them,” Benjamin Huddle, Ph.D., declared in a report presented here today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. They’re chemists from the Golden Age of Arabic-Islamic Science, which stretched from the 8th to the 13th centuries. During this era, science and medicine in Muslim countries — from southern Europe through North Africa to Central Asia and India — flourished and was unrivaled anywhere in the world. Muslim physicians and scientists made advancements that built the foundations for the emergence of modern science and medicine in Europe.
“Science in the early Muslim period is largely forgotten today in the Western world, or relegated to pseudo-science,” Huddle said. “We are rediscovering the fact that from 750 to 1258 A.D. the best science in the world was being done by Arabic-speaking peoples. In chemistry we use language from the Arabs, apparatus and techniques, many chemicals (especially perfumes), and many materials.”
In a new approach to an effective “electronic tongue” that mimics human taste, scientists in Illinois are reporting development of a small, inexpensive, lab-on-a-chip sensor that quickly and accurately identifies sweetness — one of the five primary tastes. It can identify with 100 percent accuracy the full sweep of natural and artificial sweet substances, including 14 common sweeteners, using easy-to-read color markers. This sensory “sweet-tooth” shows special promise as a simple quality control test that food processors can use to ensure that soda pop, beer, and other beverages taste great, — with a consistent, predictable flavor. Their study was described here today at the American Chemical Society’s 238th National Meeting.
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The new sensor, which is about the size of a business card, can also identify sweeteners used in solid foods such as cakes, cookies, and chewing gum. In the future, doctors and scientists could use modified versions of the sensor for a wide variety of other chemical-sensing applications ranging from monitoring blood glucose levels in people with diabetes to identifying toxic substances in the environment, the researchers say.
“We take things that smell or taste and convert their chemical properties into a visual image,” says study leader Kenneth Suslick, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “This is the first practical “electronic tongue” sensor that you can simply dip into a sample and identify the source of sweetness based on its color.”
Researchers have tried for years to develop “electronic tongues” or “electronic noses” that rival or even surpass the sensitivity of the human tongue and nose. But these devices can generally have difficulty distinguishing one chemical flavor from another, particularly in a complex mixture. Those drawbacks limit the practical applications of prior technology. Suslick’s “lab-on-a-chip” consists of a tough, glass-like container with 16 to 36 tiny printed dye spots, each the diameter of a pencil lead. The chemicals in each spot react with sweet substances in a way that produces a color change. The colors vary with the type of sweetener present, and their intensity varies with the amount of sweetener.
Scientists have copied the natural glue secreted by a tiny sea creature called the sandcastle worm in an effort to develop a long-sought medical adhesive needed to repair bones shattered in battlefield injuries, car crashes and other accidents. They reported on the adhesive here today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
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“This synthetic glue is based on complex coacervates, an ideal but so far unexploited platform for making injectable adhesives,” says Russell Stewart, Ph.D. “The idea of using natural adhesives in medicine is an old one dating back to the first investigations of mussel adhesives in the 1980s. Yet almost 30 years later there are no adhesives based on natural adhesives used in the clinic.”
The traditional method of repairing shattered bones is to use mechanical connectors like nails, pins and metal screws for support until they can bear weight. But achieving and maintaining alignment of small bone fragments using screws and wires is challenging, Stewart said. For precise reconstruction of small bones, health officials have acknowledged that a biocompatible, biodegradable adhesive could be valuable because it would reduce metal hardware in the body while maintaining proper alignment of fractures.
Stewart and colleagues duplicated the glue that sandcastle worms (Phragmatopoma californica) use while building their homes in intertidal surf by sticking together bits of sand and broken sea shells. The new glue, says Stewart, a bioengineer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, has passed toxicity studies in cell culture. It is at least as strong as Super Glue and is twice as strong as the natural adhesive it mimics, he notes.
A scientific trend to view the world’s biggest cities as analogous to living, breathing organisms is fostering a deep new understanding of how poor air quality in megacities can harm residents, people living far downwind, and also play a major role in global climate change. That’s the conclusion of a report on the “urban metabolism” model of megacities presented here today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
Charles Kolb, Ph.D., reports that the concept of urban metabolism has existed for decades. It views large cities as living entities that consume energy, food, water, and other raw materials, and release wastes. The releases include carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas; air pollutants, sewage and other water pollutants; and even excess heat that collects in vast expanses of concrete pavement and stone buildings. Humans directly produce a significant share of this waste, but emissions from industrial, power generation and transportation systems respire the largest quantities of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. Other urban metabolizers include sewage systems, landfills, domestic pets and pests like rats, which in some cities outnumber people.
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During the last five years, this body of knowledge has drawn into sharper focus the hazards of poor air quality in megacities, not just on the large local populations but also on population centers, agricultural activities and natural ecosystems located downwind from these sprawling areas, Kolb said. He is with the Center for Atmospheric and Environmental Chemistry and the Center for Aerosol and Cloud Chemistry of Aerodyne Research Inc. in Billerica, Mass.
More than half the world’s population today lives in cities, and the world’s largest urban areas are growing rapidly. The number of megacities — metropolitan areas with populations exceeding 10 million — has grown from just three in 1975 to about 20 today. “Carbon dioxide and other pollutants in megacities make them immense drivers of climate change,” he said. “They impact climate on both a regional and global level because these long-lived greenhouse gases are dispersed around the world.”
One chemist plus one new scientific discovery yields. . . an economic and environmental miracle. Almost overnight, a whole new industry springs up and breathes life into an economically-devastated region of the country. It creates millions of new jobs and pumps billions of dollars into the economy. Thousands of miles away, the discovery helps avert the potential decimation of old growth forests, where millions of spruce, fir, poplar, and other trees were being cut each year.
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“That scenario actually happened and it is a history lesson about the value of chemistry research to the real world economy,” Georgia chemist Donald Hicks, Ph.D., said here today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. Hicks was describing how a little-known discovery in 1932 by Georgia chemist Charles Holmes Herty engendered the huge pulp and paper industry in the southeastern United States. In doing so, it revived the South’s economy, devastated by the Great Depression and damage to its mainstay cotton crop by the boll weevil.
Herty, then 64, turned conventional scientific wisdom on its ear by showing that high quality paper could be made from rapidly renewable southern pine. At the time, paper for newspapers and other applications that required white paper was made from slow growth trees in the North. Demand was slowly decimating northern forests.
“Herty planned to use fast growing southern pine trees to create the very high value commodity white paper as well as cellulose and rayon,” Hicks explained. “But when he said that he wanted to use a sulfite solution chemical pulping process, every expert in the paper-making field said it couldn’t be done because of too much sticky resin in these trees.” All of the experts were wrong. Herty’s innovative theory, which proved to be valid, was that older pine trees might secrete resin as a defense mechanism, and, thus, young pines might contain much less resin.
Scientists have used a new vaccine production technology to develop a vaccine for norovirus, a dreaded cause of diarrhea and vomiting that may be the second most common viral infection in the United States after the flu. Sometimes called the “cruise ship virus,” this microbe can spread like wildfire through passenger liners, schools, offices and military bases.
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The new vaccine is unique in its origin — it was “manufactured” in a tobacco plant using an engineered plant virus. Researchers are enlisting plants in the battle against norovirus, swine flu, bird flu, and other leading infectious diseases. This plant biotechnology opens the door to more efficient, inexpensive ways to bring vaccines quickly to the public, especially critical in times when viruses mutate into unpredictable new strains, said Charles Arntzen, Ph.D., who reported on the topic today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
“The recent outbreak of H1N1 influenza virus has once again reminded us of the ability of disease-causing agents to mutate into new and dangerous forms,” Arntzen points out. “It will be at least six months until a vaccine for this new strain will be available, and it will take even longer to create large stock piles of vaccine. For a case like the H1N1 influenza virus, you want to be able to move very rapidly and introduce a commercial vaccine in the shortest possible time. We think we have a major advantage in using engineered plant viruses to scale-up vaccine manufacture within weeks instead of months.”
In a first-of-its kind study, scientists reported today at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) that snack foods like popcorn and many popular breakfast cereals contain “surprisingly large” amounts of healthful antioxidant substances called “polyphenols.”
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Polyphenols are a major reason why fruits and vegetables — and foods like chocolate, wine, coffee, and tea — have become renowned for their potential role in reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other diseases.
Until now, however, no one knew that commercial hot and cold whole grain cereals — regarded as healthful for their fiber content — and snack foods also were a source of polyphenols.
“Early researchers thought the fiber was the active ingredient for these benefits in whole grains, the reason why they may reduce the risk of cancer and coronary heart disease,” said Joe Vinson, Ph.D., who headed the new study. “But recently, polyphenols emerged as potentially more important. Breakfast cereals, pasta, crackers, and salty snacks constitute over 66 percent of whole grain intake in the U.S. diet.”
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