Upside to email worms

Although we’re somewhat loathe to admit it, there does seem to be the occasional benefit to a Worm – one of those pain in the arse self-replicating email things that steal Outlook address books and such and send out malicious code to all of your friends.

A friend of ours, Jenny Lancashire (name and gender changed for legal reasons), recently discovered that her PC (not a Mac, obviously) was infected with a worm. However, it was only when she started getting complaining messages from (ex)friends and (ex)colleagues and (ex)family members – people in her address book, in fact, that the problem came to light.

There was one message of complaint that was quite welcome though. It was from a long-lost friend who hadn’t been in touch for many years. The worm gave them an excuse to contact their old friend Jenny without the embarassment of years gone by and the two have now arranged to meet again and catch up on all the gossip.

Everyone say, “Aaaaah”. Who needs “” when all you need’s a worm?

That aside the proliferation of these annoying little memes relies on users persisting with the likes of Microsoft Outlook when a non-susceptible email client would be a much better choice.

Stable bonded oxygen

Have you heard of stable bonded oxygen molecules? No? Neither had we until an associate showed us an advert for Aerobic Oxygen.

Apparently, this wonderful stuff can treat multiple sclerosis, asthma, malaria, Parkinson’s disease, cancers, ME, flu, eczema and many other disorders. So claim the manufacturers in their marketing spiel.

The molecules in Aerobic Oxygen ‘will not release themselves until the body has need for them, therefore they travel through the body in a stable form.’ Aside from the obvious pseudoscience and the large drop of snake oil, we wonder why anyone would buy the stuff when there is so much stable bonded oxygen all around us – just enough in each breath to fulfill the body’s needs, in fact.

Weirdly, on the next page of the magazine carrying the advert, we were startled to find another, this time, marketing a product for improving eye health. The Visionace nutrient capsules from Vitabiotics apparently ‘help maintain healthy eyes and vision’ and the ‘formula’ includes ‘important antioxidant nutrients like ”natural” carotenoids, vitamin C and bioflavonoids in common with lots of other health supplements.

We began to imagine the consequences of matter colliding with antimatter, and wondered what terrible health effects might befall any one taking Aerobic Oxygen at the same time as these antioxidant capsules. Perhaps they would simply cancel each other out in a flash of the credit card. Now, take a deep breath, count to ten…and relax.

Really cookin’


Most chemists now agree that microwaves are not doing anything mysterious to chemicals. They are simply another form of electromagnetic radiation, like light, infra-red or radio waves.

Microwaves have a wavelength between 1 mm and 0.1 m (corresponding to a frequency of 300 to 3 GHz). At these wavelengths the electromagnetic energy interacts with polar molecules, such as water, making them spin. The spinning water molecules knock into each other and pass on their rotational energy by making their neighbours vibrate. The more molecules vibrate the hotter they get.

But, while there is nothing mystical about this, the process of microwave heating means that the energy is transferred to the molecules more effectively than simply heating them in a flask with a Bunsen burner so that the reactions generally go faster.

The formation of hot spots in a reaction mixture means that there are also very sharp rises in temperature without the solvent having a chance to boil away. Water, for instance, can reach 105 Celsius before boiling in such a hot spot in the microwave. The common organic solvent acetonitrile can reach 38 degrees above its normal boiling point.

Since most reaction rates are accelerated by increasing the reaction temperature – a ten-degree rise in temperature, doubles the reaction rate – a hot spot at a temperature above the normal boiling point of the reaction solvent means a microwave reaction can be that much faster.

A Wild Recipe for Hot Soil

Chernobyl accident

The French have always had a penchant for fungi, but one day you may be more likely to find a cep cleaning up after a terrorist bomb or a nuclear accident than being served up in a wild mushroom soufflé.

Edible mushrooms might not be the most obvious choice for cleaning up after a nuclear accident or the explosion of a so-called “dirty” bomb, a conventional explosive carrying radioactive material. But, French scientists reckon that a wild mushroom might soak up radioactive caesium-137 ions just as easily as it can olive oil. Caesium-137 was released in vast quantities by the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station eleven years ago and could be a major contaminant from a terrorist dirty bomb.

Removing metal and radioactive contaminants from exposed land is a crucial task. Aside from the immediate threat to the environment and the health of those living on or near such land, toxic metal ions can be carried into the food chain by vegetation growing on the land. One clean-up solution, known as bioremediation, involves deliberately planting plant species that might absorb the metals from the soil and then harvesting plants for safe disposal.

When it comes to the alkali metal caesium, however, there are no plant species that thrive on soil contaminated with it. So, if not a plant, why not a fungus?

Anne-Marie Albrecht-Gary and her colleagues at the Louis Pasteur University and the University of Strasbourg think they have found the solution in the unlikely form of the tasty bay boletus, Xerocomus badius. “Fungi often exhibit a remarkable ability to accumulate a large variety of elements, ranging from the heaviest of the transition metals such as lead or mercury, to the alkali metals, including radioisotopes like caesium-137,” explains Albrecht-Gary in a recent issue of Chemical Communications. But, she adds, little is known about how these fungi take up such metal ions.

She and her colleagues have studied the chemistry of the two pigments that give the inside of the bay boletus cap its bright yellow colour – norbadione A and badione A. These chemicals can act like molecular crab claws grabbing hold of metal ions in a pincer movement known as chelation. The yellow colour of the pigments provided the team with the means to test how well each latches on to metals, such as caesium. They exploited the pigments’ strong absorbtion of ultraviolet wavelengths to record a spectrum of the free pigment molecules and their spectra in the presence of caesium ions are markedly different. UV spectroscopy coupled with chemical analysis revealed that norbadione A in particular can bind to radioactive caesium very strongly. In fact, so strong is the norbadione claw that it can bind two caesium ions, whereas its weaker sibling badione A only has the strength to grip one at a time.

Albrecht-Gary and her colleagues believe that norbadione gets its strength from a so-called allosteric effect. When one caesium ion enters the claw, the molecule’s chemistry changes slightly so that a second gripping position opens up to accept another caesium, working like a double claw. Badione A, on the other hand has only one possible grip.

The researchers believe that norbadione A makes the bay boletus so good at sequestering radioactive caesium ions from the soil in which it grows that it should be the bioremedial agent of choice for removing this hazardous metal from contaminated land. “Obviously, fungi can be very efficient at accumulating toxic metals and radioelements and constitute an excellent and elegant tool for soil bioremediation,” says Albrecht-Gary, “However, the limitation on this very potent application is controlled growing of the mushrooms.”


While norbadione A will almost certainly have a role in bioremediation, the team has dashed hopes for its medical use in removing toxic metals, such as radioactive caesium-137 cadmium and nickel, from the body. Its grip on other alkali metals, such as the essential minerals sodium and potassium is just too strong.

Of, course one problem remains: what to do with the radioactive fungi…one can hardly cook them in an omelet.