Science Teacher Gets Flashed

I remember seeing some dull old film clip of the thermite process in action during school chemistry class. Much better would have been to see it live, in the schoolyard with a science teacher dumb enough to head back over to the reaction vessel because it hadn’t fired up quickly enough. Well, for those who missed out there’s a nice video of that very happening.

What I cannot understand is why those students and the first teacher are not wearing some kind of protective goggles and why they’re not behind a safety screen of some sort. If you did this kind of thing in a British chemistry class OFSTED would put the school on special measures quick as you could weld two chunks of metal together with aluminium (aluminum) powder and iron oxide at 2500 Celsius. D’oh!

Male pill

Despite Carl Djerassi’s prediction (some years ago) that we would never see a “male pill”, it looks like just such a contraceptive treat is coming at last.

The new drug, Adjudin, is currently in early clinical trials and is a long way from human use. However, the very fact that drug companies are taking a male oral contraceptive seriously suggests a sea change iin attitudes. It’s not ten years ago that I heard Djerassi speak on this very subject and point out how the likelihood of a chemical contraceptive for men would never arrive.

Apparently, Adjudin triggers re-absorption of immature sperm cells so that they never reach the seminal point of no return infamously faced by Woody Allen in his notorious tale of sex. Chuen-yan Cheng of the Population Council’s Center for Biomedical Research in New York has tested the drug on lab rats and found there to be no obvious side effects other than that the males became infertile. Imporantly, the process is entirely temporary and just 20 weeks off the pill gets the sperm fighting fit once more.

Already, the concept of such a contraceptive has those opposed to any form of contraception chomping at the bit and arguing as to whether such a form of contraceptive contravenes religious doctrine or not. When one considers every sperm as sacred, biblically speaking, then are these immature fledgling sperm being “wasted” or not?

Of course, there are much more serious issues to consider, such as sexual health.

Over on Digg, a comment from “mizzack” in response to the CBS News article on this drug announcement goes like this:

Guy: “Hey, wanna go back to my place?”
Girl: “Sure”
[back at the house]
Girl: “Do you have condoms?”
Guy: “Oh, no, don’t need ’em. I’m on the pill”
Girl: “Riggggggght. Do you have condoms?”

Perhaps even more important than putative problems couples may face in the distant future should this male pill ever reach market is the fact that Cheng’s team previously reported that animal tests had shown Adjudin, to be toxic when given orally, causing liver problems and muscle wasting. Not exactly two happy things to happen to a guy. In the current trial, Adjudin has been conjugated with follicle-stimulating hormone to purportedly preclude such toxicity. It worked but only when the conjugate was administered intravenously.

So, the choice would be muscle wasting, which may or may not reduce your chance of a date, liver damage or regular injections into the belly to keep babies at bay, the need for a hormone adjuvant, and no intrinsic protection from HIV, chlamydia, syphyllis, gonnorhea, and any of several other STDs.

So, perhaps Djerassi was right after all and we may never see a marketable male pill. Caps off to the father of the pill.

Halloween pumpkin seeds health benefits

Halloween pumpkin

Wondering what to do with all those seeds hacked from the orange flesh of your halloween pumpkin? You could try eating them, especially if you’re on a low-protein diet or likely to be exposed to the organic solcent carbon tetrachloride (tetrachloromethane)!

According to researchers in South Africa, pumpkin seeds can protect the liver from the harmful effects of protein deficiency and exposure to hepatotoxins such as carbon tet.

The seeds of the pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) contain a protein that is a potent antioxidant according to SE Terblanche and colleagues at the University of Zululand in KwaDlangezwa.

The researchers tested the effects of protein isolate on blood plasma levels of certain enzymes including catalase, superoxide dismutase, and glutathione peroxidase, and on total antioxidant capacity in the liver of rats fed a low protein diet that were exposed to carbon tetrachloride.

They report that, “From the results of the present study it is concluded that pumpkin seed protein isolate administration was effective in alleviating the detrimental effects associated with protein malnutrition and carbon tetrachloride intoxication.” Terblanche and colleagues explain that this indicates that pumpkin seed protein isolate has powerful antiperoxidative properties.

Details of the research appears in the November issue of the journal Phytotherapy Research, 2006, 20(11), 935-940.

Of course, swallowing a handful of pumpkin seeds is not really going to provide adequate protection against ingestion of carbon tetrachloride, so please don’t make it a Halloween chaser.

Science blog goes international


I abandoned the international system on Sciencebase some time ago. The translation of documents with relatively high scientific content by Google and Babel is just so poor that I received several emails from readers saying just how bad it made the site look to those whose native tongue is not English.


Regular readers may have noticed the selection of national flags on the right-hand menu have now been demoted to the bottom of the column. We’ve been experimenting with inline machine translation to see how well it copes with a scientific technical site. A few readers have pointed out that the translations into their native tongue are at best amusing and at worse ludicrous.

The translation system is based on Google and the Babelfish (for Chinese) system and uses a plugin to produce translated versions of each post on-the-fly. The system seems to be far from perfect but might provide some of the gist of each post, although one Chinese readers thinks it doesn’t even do that.

At the moment, you can read the sciencebase blog, news and views in a version of the following languages Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish. Please note, no automatic translation of a science site with its various technical terms is going to be 100% accurate, indeed the Google and Babelfish systems are not 100% accurate even for non-technical sites. But, we hope the system provides a flavour of our articles.

If we get any more complaints, we’ll probably ditch the system altogether, or at least until machine translation is less hilarious for readers.

Chemistry really adds up

AP de SilvaAP de Silva was born in Sri Lanka but moved to Queen’s University of Belfast, in the 1970s and is now Professor of Chemistry. His fascinating research into small logical molecules has found commercial application in diagnostics and sensors, has recently led to a breakthrough in labelling compound libraries, and may one day help us build a molecular computer.

Read my interview with AP in Reactive Reports to learn a little more about the man behind those glowing molecules that truly add up.

Cultural evolution in the lab

Adding a little culture to the chemical laboratory could help chemists find structures much faster than before. According to UK chemists, Samantha Chong and Maryjane Tremayne, of the University of Birmingham, combining the principles of social and biological evolution with a little fashion sense to make a new Cultural Differential Evolution algorithm allowed them to half the time it took to solve the structure of a molecule from its powder diffraction data.

Their research could have widespread application in solving a variety of global optimization problems in chemistry, nanoscience and bioinformatics.

The use of evolutionary algorithms is a relatively new approach to solving problems based on mimicking the principles of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest”. The Birmingham team reasoned that the much more rapid social evolution experienced by humans, essentially fashion sense, could be merged into an evolutionary algorithm to help reduce the number of likely candidates for a particular structure much more quickly. They have now demonstrated how this works on two compounds, a previously unsolved structure and baicalein, the active ingredient in the Asian herbal medicine “Sho-saiko-to”.

Read on…

Not fade away

sn14a N st petersNo one of whatever religious persuasion who visits the Sistine Chapel in Rome can fail to be impressed by the results of a 20-year restoration project that has brought Michelangelo’s frescoes back to their original level of artistry. Most notable is the brilliance of the sky blue that almost illuminates the Last Judgement on the altar wall of the chapel. But, recent NMR analysis of the ultramarine pigment used to produce this stunning blue suggests its tendency to fade could see the Last Judgement and other works ultimately perish.

Alexej Jerschow of New York University, Eleonora Del Federico of the Pratt Institute, and their colleagues have now discovered why the blue pigment fades. Their findings could provide art conservationists with vital information on how to protect works of art.

You can read the full story in the latest news round up from DB in

Parkinson symptoms

The common perception of Parkinson’s disease is of a disorder that leads to problems with movement, tremors, involuntary spasms, and a shuffling gait. However, functional MRI has now confirmed that the disease can also cause widespread abnormalities in the sense of touch and vision for sufferers. An international team from the US and China presented their findings at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Atlanta on October 17.

Research into Parkinson’s disease has previously focused mainly on the brain’s motor and premotor cortex, sidestepping the somatosensory and the visual cortex because the most prominent symptoms are associated with movement and not the senses. However, neurologist Krish Sathian of Emory University and colleagues discovered through tests of tactile ability, that PD patients also have sensory problems with touch. The researchers recently designed a study using fMRI to investigate this earlier finding and to ascertain whether or not changes in the brain underly these sensory abnormalities.

Read on…

It’s not easy being green

News just in from Imperial College London suggests that climate change in Europe is worsening the impact of a deadly disease which is wiping out vast numbers of amphibians. IC’s Matthew Fisher and colleagues working with colleagues in Madrid have found a correlation between significant warming of the local climate in Spain between 1976 and 2002 and the emergence of the fungal disease Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (BD) in the area and its effects on midwife toads.

The fungus infects amphibians’ skin and is believed to cause disease by interfering with the skin’s ability to absorb water. As a result of BD, the common midwife toad is now virtually extinct in the area of Spain studied by the researchers, the Penalara Natural Park, where it once thrived.

The researchers believe various factors are at play in increasing the impact of BD on toad mortality. Amphibians are cold-blooded, so their body temperature is linked to the surrounding environment, for instance. meaning that changes in external temperature may affect their bodies’ ability to ward off disease. BD is also thought to be better suited to a warmer climate.

More details can be found in today’s issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Chemical reactions

The current update of Reactive Reports is now online featuring:

An interview with molecular logician AP de Silva, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, how a biologically compatible gel could revolutionize surgery and save lives in the emergency room, and a dietary response to Alzheimer’s disease that puts red wine, spicy food and a mediterranean salad squarely on the preventative menu.

Check our latest reactions here.