News in brief
Power through the air
You may be able to recharge your electronic gadgets without connecting them to the mains, say US researchers who have developed a technology they call WiTricity - wireless electricity.
Marin Soljacic and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lit a 60 watt lightbulb using a mains-powered copper coil placed over two metres away, with no physical connection to the bulb.
The technology is not new: Michael Faraday discovered in 1831 that a coil's oscillating magnetic field induces an electric current in a nearby coil. But this power induction drops away rapidly as the coils move apart; energy simply radiates into space.
The key to sending power efficiently across long distances is electromagnetic resonance: coils tuned to the same magnetic resonant frequency will transfer energy without it being dissipated to surrounding objects. Soljacic's team got a respectable 15 per cent of the power from mains to lightbulb. They reported their results in Science.
Physicist Nikolai Tesla invented the principles of long-distance wireless power transmission at the beginning of the 20th century, but his scheme was less efficient, and involved generating dangerously high electric fields. Soljacic's team minimise the external electric field for safety.
Testing chemicals on animals too costly
Using animals to test chemicals for human toxicity is too expensive and time-consuming, a US National Research Council report has concluded. Toxicity testing could be based on computational methods and in vitro high throughput assays using human cells, said the report, Toxicity testing in the twenty-first century: a vision and a strategy, requested by the Environmental Protection Agency. The animal-testing approach is overburdened and may not be relevant to humans, who are exposed to lower chemical doses; but it is still needed to complement cell assays, which can't yet mirror the metabolism of a whole animal, the Council noted.
Panning for genome gold
Two enormous studies scanning the human genome have turned up a wealth of information on DNA and diseases. The Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium, comprising more than 50 research teams, analysed half a million genetic markers in thousands of people to reveal 24 genetic variants - many previously unknown - associated with common diseases, including diabetes, coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and hypertension. 'This is just the tip of a wave,' Peter Donnelly, chairman of the consortium, told Chemistry World. It will be some time before new therapies emerge from the findings, though, as researchers need to pinpoint which genes are involved in the diseases, and their function.
Scientists have also reported the first results from the ENCODE project. This 'encyclopaedia of DNA elements', launched in 2003, aims to catalogue all the functional elements of our genome, especially the non-coding DNA which makes no detectable proteins but controls how genes are used. The pilot phase, which analysed one per cent of the human genome, found that much so-called 'junk' DNA is translated into RNA, though what it's for is still unclear.
Committed to carbon cuts?
Halving global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 will be 'considered seriously', according to a 7 June agreement reached by leaders of the G8 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US), at a summit in Heiligendamm, Germany. The accord comes before talks beginning in Bali, Indonesia, in December, to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on cutting carbon emissions, which runs out in 2012.
Ahead of the G8 meeting, on 3 June, Australian prime minister John Howard promised to set up a carbon trading scheme by 2012, and said he would announce carbon emissions targets next year - after the country's general elections.
China announced its first national plan for climate change on 4 June. No carbon targets were set, but the country hopes to raise its use of renewable energy from seven per cent to 10 per cent by 2010.
All change at UK research councils
UK science minister Malcolm Wicks has appointed David Delpy as new chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences research council (EPSRC). Delpy, a medical physicist at University College London, will succeed Sir John O'Reilly in September.
He is joined by new EPSRC chairman John Armitt, formerly the chief executive of network rail, who replaced Dame Julia Higgins in April. Armitt told Chemistry World that his commercial and industrial perspective, and experience in running large organisations, would balance Delpy's more academic background.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences research council (BBSRC) is also reorganising. Julia Goodfellow, the first female chief executive of any UK research council, will become vice-chancellor of the University of Kent in September. Her BBSRC replacement has not yet been named.
Pigment helps fungi 'eat' radiation
Some fungi thrive on radiation, according to US scientists. Arturo Casadevall and colleagues from Yeshiva University, New York, found fungi exposed to ionising gamma radiation grew faster than unexposed samples.
Their experiments, reported in PLoS One, suggest the dark pigment melanin, found in fungi and human skin, may harvest ionising radiation much as chlorophyll harvests light. Exposure to radiation altered the melanin's structure, so it became better at shuttling electrons during metabolic reactions.
Black, melanin-rich fungi grow on the walls of the reactor at Chernobyl, Casadevall noted.
Pesticides checked for hormone harm
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published a draft list of 73 pesticides that it will check for possible disruption of rodents' oestrogen, androgen and thyroid hormone systems. Following worries that contaminants were disrupting the reproductive systems and development of some fish and wildlife, the Endocrine Disrupter Screening Program was required by Congress under the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996. But only now have protocols and assays for testing been agreed.
The listed pesticides were chosen because of their potential for widespread exposure, not because they are suspected endocrine disrupters, the EPA stresses. They will undergo quick 'Tier 1' screening assays; or can move straight into 'Tier 2' tests in rats.
The EPA is accepting comments on the list until 17 September 2007.
Stanley L Miller (1930-2007)
Stanley Miller, widely known as the father of origin-of-life chemistry, died on Sunday 20 May at the age of 77.
Miller is famous for an elegant experiment, conducted at the University of Chicago, US, with Harold Urey, and published in Science in 1953, showing that life's essential amino acids could have arisen from conditions on the early Earth. He heated water, ammonia, hydrogen and methane ('primordial soup') in a flask and sparked them with an electrical discharge to represent lightning. A week later, he found glycine and other organic compounds in the flask.
Miller worked at the University of California, San Diego, US, from 1960. As well as continuing to research the origins of life, he studied clathrate structures and the mechanisms of general anaesthetics.
Enter Phase Zero
Scientists testing an Abbott Laboratories cancer drug said they had successfully conducted the first ever Phase 0 trials.
Where Phase I trials are usually the first in humans, and test for safety and dose tolerance, Phase 0 refers to the idea of using tiny doses in a few patients to see if the drug actually acts on its target protein. These quick, early trials are aimed at saving time and money by ruling out drugs with no effect on the mechanism they are targeted against.
Wanted: illness biomarkers
A £17 million fund has been set up by the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC) for research into biomarkers, the tell-tale body chemicals associated with particular diseases.
The fund will be split between 18 separate studies that will hunt for previously unknown biomarkers, develop better ways to measure them, and assess which are the most useful indicators of disease
The projects, which encompass cancer, stroke, Parkinson's and cardiovascular diseases, will run for three years.
Reach in force
The European chemicals legislation, Reach (Registration, evaluation, authorisation and restrictions of chemicals) entered into force on 1 June, as the new European chemicals agency started operations in Helsinki. About 30 000 chemical substances in use today will need to be registered over the next 11 years. One of the agency's first tasks is to make sufficient information available to companies on how to comply with the new requirements.
The Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, was denoted a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society at a 14 June ceremony in Columbus, Ohio. Other landmarks named through the program have included the invention of Bakelite, the discovery of penicillin, and the work of Antoine Lavoisier.
Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto opened a £3.2m nanotechnology and nanoscience centre at Nottingham University, UK, on 18 June.
17 per cent Energy savings by closing unused fume hood sashes at night, according to Steven Amanti of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, US.
750000 Number of fume hoods across the US.
$1.4 billion potential annual savings in utility bills if fume hood sashes were closed at night.