The Alchemist Born Again

For those of you who didn’t know, ChemWeb’s “The Alchemist” was given a new lease of life by chemical searching company some time ago now. In fact, I’ve just compiled issue 38 of the “new” chemistry news round-up. It’s live today and covers a diverse range of chemical matter including an expose on how soil-eating microbes can be engineered to produce biodegradable plastics, more revelations on benzene in soft drinks, and the scandal surrounding the US’s refusal to grant eminent Indian chemist Goverdhan Mehta an entry visa

Read on…

Regulatory Compliance

Did you know that all US firms have to keep all records, including e-mails and other electronic records for at least five years under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002? Moreover, if your company is in healthcare, then you also have to hang on to a variety of emails and documents, such as contracts, policy and procedure documents, patient communications, authorizations and consumer complaints for six years! You can find out more and how to manage your email and IM (instant messaging) files in this White Paper

Mormon Crickets Go Cannibal

Mormon Cricket - CannibalismHunger for protein and salt, and a fear of cannibalism, drives the
mass migration of Mormon crickets across western North America, says Stephen Simpson of the University of Sydney, Australia. Mormon cricket swarms, sometimes millions strong covering more than 50 miles in a season. They destroy vegetation in their path and are a severe hazard to drivers.

Locust plagues of Biblical proportions have been with mankind, since, well, Biblical times, at least(!) and usually these creatures swarm in response to a shortage of food. The precise nutritional triggers for the migrations of Mormon crickets though have remained a mystery. Now, field observations by Simpson and his colleagues offer an explanation.

It seems that total starvation is not the driving force, rather migratory crickets preferentially feed at experimental protein-rich and salt rich sources. In the field, crickets were frequently observed feeding on carrion and on each other. When the movement of crickets was experimentally impaired (immobilized by gluing and/or tethering), these insects became targets for cannibalism by neighbouring crickets. These results thus reveal a different model for collective motion, with the crickets’ migration in effect a forced march, the researchers say. The constant threat of cannibalism from the rear appears to push the crickets’ movement as much as the need to find protein and salt pulls it.

Simpson and his colleagues publish further details of their findings today in the online edition of PNAS.

Science Fair Project Guides – Bonus

Although I run sections of the Sciencebase site with science experiments and lesson plans, these aren’t necessarily aimed at the busy parents of a homeschooler with an assignment to complete. For that Sciencebase offers access to some independent science fair resources. These great projects (which I’ve tried with my own young children) are perfect for completing a science fair assignment in a given time, providing a complete list of equipment needed, full instructions, and sample spreadsheets to help young investigators make the most of their own results.

You can download individual project packs (24-hour or weekend) right now, but I’ve negotiated a limited time offer for Sciencebase visitors that isn’t mentioned on the company’s site so that you can get all ten project guides at a discount. Click here to start downloading your science fair project guides.

Manually Adjusting Prolactin Levels

According to The Register, levels of the “satisfaction” hormone prolactin do not reach as high a peak following manual stimulation in men as they do after purportedly procreational activity with a partner.

The original research published in Biological Psychology could explain what The Register describes subtly as a “niggling dissatisfaction” following the former approach to gratification. Needless to say, the remainder of their article is anything but subtle and the link above should only be followed if you’re feeling up to blatant sexual innuendo.

Styrofoam and Polystyrene

It’s not an excuse to use more plastic cups at the office water cooler, but Irish and German researchers have discovered that the soil bacterium Pseudomonas putida can eat polystyrene. This polymer, instantly recognisable in its expanded form is a key component of disposable cups, and in “plastic” plates and utensils.

Turning it into an eco-friendly plastic would significantly reduce the environmental impact of this ubiquitous, but difficult-to-recycle waste stream, according to a study scheduled to appear Kevin O’Connor of University College Dublin and colleagues there and in Germany publish details of their work in the April 1 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, but their research is no joke.

Worldwide, more than 14 million tonnes of polystyrene are produced annually, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Most of this ends up in landfills. Although polystyrene represents less than 1 percent of solid waste generated in the US, at least 2.3 million tons of it is dumped in US landfills annually. Just 1 percent of polystyrene waste is recycled.

The microbe is a special strain that can convert petroleum-based plastic waste, produced by pyrolysis to convert it into styrene oil, into a reusable biodegradable form. The result of microbial intervention is a biodegradable plastic known as PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates). O’Connor suggests that a similar process might be used to convert other types of discarded plastics into PHA.

PHA is used in medicine and for plastic kitchenware, packaging film and other disposable items. It is resistant to hot liquids, greases and oils, but unlike polystyrene, it readily breaks down in soil, water, septic systems and backyard composts.

Stroke Immunity

Proteins involved in the inflammatory response could be used to help in brain
regeneration following cerebral stroke, according to Swedish researchers writing in the EMBO
Journal today.

Complement proteins participate in the inflammatory response and scientists have suggested that under abnormal circumstances, following stroke for instance, their role in inflammation could contribute to tissue damage in the brain. This new research, by Marcela Pekna and colleagues of the Sahlgrenska Academy at Goeteborg University, reveals surprisingly that complement proteins may also have a beneficial role.

Pekna’s team have shown for the first time that neural stem cells and neural precursor cells express receptors for complement proteins and that the complement system positively regulates the maturation of neural cells in adult mice both under normal circumstances and during brain
regeneration after a stroke. A better understanding of the dual role of the complement system in stroke, and possibly other central nervous system (CNS) pathologies, may help researchers to design more effective therapeutic strategies by developing complement inhibitory agents that
neutralize the adverse aspects of complement activation while enhancing those that are neuroprotective and facilitate repair.

The paper is available online at

Sporty Nanotubes

Integrating stiff carbon nanotubes into more traditional materials, such as polycarbonates, can dramatically improve the material’s ability to absorb vibrations, especially at high temperatures, according to US researchers. The discovery could lead to new composites for aerospace and automobile engineering applications as well as improving golf clubs and other sports equipment. You can read the complete story in this month’s Reactive Reports.

Funnel Back Search Engine

A search engine spun out from the Australian research organisation CSIRO is already powering the Australian Government Information
Management Office, Westpac Banking Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the University of Sydney, National Research Council of Canada, University of Staffordshire, and the Scottish Care Commission and could soon offer users from multinational down to SOHOs a way to search their websites, intranets, file-shares and databases that side-steps the security risks associated with other desktop search engine software that has recently come to light.

“Funnelback is a better search engine because of its superior ability to
help users find the information they are looking for quickly and
accurately,” says Dr Stephen Kirby, Chairman of Funnelback Pty Ltd. [That has to be one of the most trite press release statements ever, Ed.]

Nevertheless, the “new” search engine could improve the lot of scientists who only see so much spam and commercial garbage when searching with the more commonplace SEs.

According to the Funnelback development website, however, the SE “offers a better search experience based on its high-quality ranking algorithms.” These it claims take into account many factors when ranking a document. So far, nothing new, the likes of Google have been doing that for years.

Indeed, the Funnelback site spells out exactly what it uses to rank a webpage:

* The anchortext pointing to the page
* The number of incoming links from other pages and sites
* The length of the page address (URL) and the presence of query words in the URL
* The number of times your query words appear in the page and in the collection, and the length of the page

So, basically, it ranks pages in pretty much the same way as Google. Of course, we’re not going to be “Funnelbacking search results” like we “Google” them in our everyday searching. “We’re not tackling the global web search market dominated by Google, Yahoo and MSN,” Funnelback’s Francis Crimmins told us. He adds that “we have a strong story in the enterprise and hosted search space.” One additional interesting aspect of this SE is that Funnelback, as well as carrying out basic web ranking, supports a “free-text + metadata search”.

Benzene Soda

Sodium benzoate (E211) is a public health issue that has been bubbling for fifteen years and could soon come to a head and have the fizzy drinks industry frothing at the mouth.

Sodium benzoate is a preservative added to carbonated beverages, but those drinks that also have added citric or ascorbic acid (vitamin C, E300) can be susceptible to the formation of benzene as a degradation product. At least that’s the theory.

The US Food & Drugs Administration (FDA) was aware of this issue in the 1990s and alerted manufacturers who were then meant to introduce a “quick fix” to prevent this carcinogenic degradant from forming in amounts above safety levels. However, there have been hundreds of new susceptible beverages brought to market the world over since by smaller manufacturers as well as the well-known ones and seemingly the benzene message has been lost in the intervening time.

Germany’s food watchdog, BfR, and the UK’s Food Standards Agency are currently testing drinks to see whether benzene levels are above WHO recommendations. Other countries are also on the alert. The renewed concern follows the FDA’s re-opening of an investigation, closed for 15 years, into benzene in soft drinks.

You can read more details of this at industry newsletter Beverage Daily

Some studies have shown that levels of benzene are present at five times the WHO’s limit for drinking water contamination and can occur in bottled soft drinks exposed to heat and light especially.

In acid conditions, benzoate is converted to benzoic acid (the active antimicrobial form, benzoate is added as a preservative for a reason after all) and it is thought that it interacts with hydroxyl radicals released by the ascorbic acid (better known as vitamin C) reaction with iron or copper ions in the water. These hydroxyl can decarboxylate benzoic acid, releasing carbon dioxide and leaving benzene behind. But, at what rates this occurs is not clear.

Moreover, leaving out the ascorbic or citric acid from soft drinks would be the simple solution and avoiding benzoate as a preservative in foods that contain these acids naturally would offer an end to the “problem”.

However, the issue brings to the fore once again the issue of acceptable risk. Sodium benzoate is present in soft drinks only in very small amounts and even if degradation were complete, the risk to someone drinking it is tiny. To have the same exposure as lab animals used to demonstrate carcinogenicity would mean a person having to drink 10,000 bottles of benzoate-containing soda.

Still, such minor details will not stop the media from jumping on this as the next big scare story despite the fact that it’s been around for years as public chemophobia.