chemistry


More new images from Herschel Space Observatory have arrived, and you can check out the whole spread at their website here. They aren’t as impressive as the last composite of the M51 Whirlpool Galaxy, but for images that still represent rough drafts of the data we can eventually hope to see after the equipment on board the probe is fully calibrated, they’re exceptionally promising.

Though something less than breathtaking aesthetically, these shots do give Herschel a chance to flex it’s analytical muscle. Each image is more than just a still photo of celestial objects like the Cat’s Eye Nebula. The observatory also provides important data on their physical properties and chemical composition by taking photos of objects at specific wavelengths.

A recent Twitter post alluding to failed activities and urgent re-planning aside, calibration on Herschel seems to be going swimmingly, with results so far exceeding researchers expectations. Scientists at the European Space Agency are sanguine that they will have the observatory running at full speed shortly, and hope to have new scientific results courtesy of the data the craft will provide before the end of 2009.

A collaboration between researchers at McGill University, UCLA and the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro, to friends) has produced the first photograph of a memory being formed. The image , captured courtesy of a fluorescent tracking protein, shows evidence of proteins forming stronger synaptic connections between nerve cells as a new memory is created.

While this is awesome in principle, the sad fact is that the process makes for a something less than riveting visual experience. I mean, it’s a big step forward in neuroscience and all, I know. But really, it just looks like a green spiderweb with some bubbles within it. Call me difficult to please, but somehow, I found myself wanting more.

Maybe I’m a rank sentimentalist, but I still held out a hope that the creation of memory looked more like a tiny, much harried librarian who lived inside my brain, frantically transcribing my every experience before filing them away in no particular order. Alas, one more naive schoolboy dream is crushed under the unstoppable weight of scientific discovery.

Cancer research saw a couple of exciting stories this week, with German researchers taking a novel approach to tackling the chronic pain associated with many cancer cases while an Australian pharmaceutical company tries to beat the disease from the inside.

A team at Heidelberg University has found a molecule produced by tumors which enhances nerve ending growth in surrounding tissue. It’s thought that this new growth of nerve endings may be responsible for the unique type of pain suffered by cancer patients, which is not only intense  but often doesn’t respond to traditional treatments for pain. With a likely suspect for cancer pain in their sights, the next step for researchers is to find a way to block transmission of the molecule, ideally easing the pain at it’s source.

Meanwhile, Australian firm Bionomics released promising findings from the Phase I clinical trial of BNC105. The catchily named substance is among a  crop of drugs known as Vascular Targeting Agents (VDAs), which fight cancer by cutting off the blood flow to tumors, effectively starving them. Which is interesting enough, but BNC105 turns it’s nice jab into a strong 1-2 punch. In addition to cutting blood flow to tumors efficiently while avoiding ill effects to other organs, BNC105 has is also a cytotoxic agent, poisoning the tumor while also starving it. It also seems to be retained within tumors, meaning that it can keep doing it’s dirty work on the inside with minimal side effects. That’s because by the time blood flow is cut off, it’s too late for the tumor to expel the toxic agent. Or, in the parlance of horror films – THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!

Take a look at the drugs bio at Bionomics website, and take a look at the Phase I trial results here.

The bad news is that, stringent counter-measures and all, China saw it’s first reported case of domestic swine flu today. But even with the latest H1N1 strain making it’s first appearance in Venezuela, Paraguay and several other South American nations this week, there may be more cause for celebration than outright terror. The virus doesn’t seem to be sweeping the southern hemisphere, where flu season is in full swing, with beyond normal levels of contagion.

Meanwhile, research labs in the US and UK have both successfully produced “starting strains” of the young virus. These strains, which hybridize the new flu with extant viral strains, are the first steps toward a vaccine for the disease. The two existing strains are being shipped to labs throughout the world allowing researchers to start developing ways to fight the newest H1N1 virus. And with Australian researchers nearing completion on a third starting strain, the chances that we’ll have a functioning vaccine sometime in the near future are actually pretty good.

And while a vaccine is great news, quickly identifying viral outbreaks is about to get a lot easier, thanks to research firm Ostendum. The company has produced a prototype device that can detect the presence of a particular virus in just minutes. Seemingly straight out of James Bond movies, the gadget is light weight and portable, and can also be used to uncover specific bacteria or proteins with just a small sample of blood or saliva. If all goes well, the company plans to have every hypochondriac’s handheld best friend to market by late next year.

This week’s big winner is University of Colorado professor Chris Greene, whose theories that a Rydberg molecule could be formed were finally proven correct this week. The extremely weak molecular bond, in which a Rydberg atom, with just one electron in its outermost orbit, bonds for a matter of microseconds with a normal atom, forming a Rydberg molecule. The trick to forming the bond is getting conditions cold enough for the Rydberg atom to interact with it’s standard partner – University of Stuttgart researchers who successfully formed the molecule only did so at a temperature of negative 273 degrees Celsius.

Greene is joined on the podium by cow farmers everywhere, for whom the decoding of the cow genome earlier this week means that mucking about with the fundamental makeup of the animals they make their living on just got that much easier. An unlocked genome means that farmers can produce new strains and breeds of cow which will be optimized to produce more and better quality milk and meat. Future generations of gene tinkered bovines could even go to the slaughterhouse with smiles on their eager to be murdered faces. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Speaking of people with smiles on their faces, anti-depressant manufacturers are looking pretty giddy lately, and it’s not because they’ve been dipping into their own stash. Rather, the recent news that a ban on teenage anti-depressant use has not affected suicide rates among teens in the United Kingdom calls into question the perceived link between depression medication and teenagers taking their own lives. That’s right – teenagers killing themselves is actually good news for pharmaceutical companies. Try and act surprised.

Medication isn’t the only treatment for depression, though. For some people suffering from depression, a couple of hours in front of the TV can relieve the feelings of loneliness and isolation, imbuing viewers with a sense of belonging that may be missing in their lives.

‘Clean coal’ supporters also won big this week as Energy Secretary Steven Chu threw the backing of the United States behind the industry, which depends on technologies like carbon capture and gasification to provide energy from coal that doesn’t wreak havoc on the environment. The good news – these technologies may even exist and be effective. The bad news – well, they also may not, but we’re going to use them anyhow.

Cause for optimism remains, though. For evidence that things aren’t always as bad as we think, look no further than the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most astonishing natural wonders of the planet. After spending years teetering on the broink of devastation, the reef has either started one of the most amazing comebacks on record or dodged a bullet, depending on who you ask. Either way, chalk one up in the win column.

That’s not to say optimism is always warranted, as thinkers of happy thoughts are also inaugurating our losers section this week. The reason? Well, it turns out that people possessed of the rosiest outlook for the environmental future of the planet are also those who have the least notion of what’s going on. Of course, the study was performed using 15 year old subjects, so take it for what it’s worth, but remember – these are the people who will be making decisions that impact all life on earth in the coming decades, and if this study has proven one thing, it’s that not knowing how things work makes them happy.

On the other hand, unrestrained pessimists don’t look to be faring any better. News that people who think they will lose their memory as they age tend to experience far worse memory loss than individuals who don’t buy into senior moment stereotypes has Grumpy Gusses the world over settling angrily into the losers column this week. Doesn’t that just figure?

In other unsurprising news, ugly kids are among this weeks losers. A University of Miami study released this week linked physical attractiveness and good grooming in high school with not only higher grades, but also long term financial success. While this may be less than newsworthy, it does support the notion that every film strip you ever watched in elementary school was exactly right about everything, and if that doesn’t terrify you, you’re a stronger person than me.

Among this weeks other losers are Vietnam veterans, because they certainly haven’t had to put up with enough crap already. A study due out in the May issue of The British Journal of Urology International found that prostate cancer patients who had been exposed to Agent Orange  had a 50 percent higher risk of the cancer recurring than others, and that their instances of recurrence were significantly more aggressive than those of other patients.

And closing out our losers is NASA. The agency is staring down a deadline to make a decision on whether to rehab or retire the current space shuttle fleet, but doesn’t have a top executive in place to make the call. Every day that the decision gets put off is a bad one for NASA, whose astronauts are already faced with the bleak prospect of hitching rides to space alongside Russian cosmonauts. With Ruso-American relations remaining icy, that’s a bad fix at best. But keeping the current shuttle fleet in operation while the next generation of ships gets ready to go up, up and away may simply be too dangerous for the agency to face.

Breast milk being the best milk may have more wisdom behind it than just a happily coincidental rhyme nowadays.

Distressingly, the simple couplet may be more pertinent not for what it provides nutritionally, but for what it leaves out of infant diets – namely perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket fuel, which has been found in baby formula according to a study by the Center for Disease Control.

The study doesn’t name names of the 15 brands it tested, but researchers were able to say that all 15 brands contained perchlorate, and that contamination levels were highest in the most popular brands.

Particularly troubling is that most of the formulas are being combined with tap water, and almost all tap water contains perchlorate. Researchers hypothesized that up to 54% of children drinking formula could be getting a daily dose of rocket fuel ingredient above the safe limit suggested by the EPA. But with the EPA still dragging it’s feet on setting regulations for perchlorate levels in drinking water, at this point, all we can do is hope that the chemical renders children swifter and more energetic, rather than causing lasting harm.

For more info, check out the full study here.

With unidentified crap from space raining down upon us with disturbing regularity, there’s no better time to have a giant laser in your planetary defense arsenal.

This years must have gift for the arch-villain in your life is on the verge of getting fired up – five years late and billions of dollars over budget, the world’s largest laser is preparing for ignition at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Sporting a final price tag of $3.5 billion , the National Ignition Facility, which is as large as 3 football fields, will seek to produce self sustaining nuclear fusion in a 2mm sample of beryllium, deuterium and tritium.

To this end, they’ll be bombarding the sample with 192 laser beams, ultimately creating an environment that replicates the conditions on the Sun. The laser has a multitude of different applications, the most practical of which is simulating the conditions of a nuclear explosion in order to help researchers better understand the cleanup process for  nuclear material. But it will also allow chemists and physicists to better understand the way that different types of plasma interact with one another, chemical reactions in super dense environment, such as on a gas giant like Jupiter, and, of course, the power mad devastation of all those who oppose you. 

Whether it’s ultimately used to help us learn more about supernovas or just bring small nations to their knees, one thing is for sure – it’s only a matter of time before some scientist working late gets a wild hair and tries to carve his name into the moon. And to that hypothetical future researcher, I say this – well played, sir. Well played.