News in brief
Spicing up pain relief
US scientists have developed an anaesthetic that blocks pain without causing numbness or paralysis. It uses the active ingredient in chilli peppers, capsaicin, to target only pain-sensing neurons, avoiding the ones associated with feeling or movement.
Conventional anaesthetics stop all neurons sending messages to the brain. That's a disadvantage, for example, in childbirth, where mothers need to be able to push to deliver their babies. The new anaesthetic, reported in Nature(DOI: 10.1038/nature06191) by Clifford Woolf and colleagues at Harvard Medical School, is a lidocaine derivative that can't normally travel through the cell membranes of any neurons.
Capsaicin opens up selective ion channels only found in pain-sensing neurons, allowing the lidocaine derivative to pass through and block pain signals. The anaesthetic remains shut out from all other neurons. The treatment showed promise in rats and could be extended to humans, Woolf thought, provided no burning sensation is detected before the anaesthetic kicks in.
Ozone-depleting chemicals phased out faster
Over 200 nations have agreed at a UN meeting in Montreal to accelerate the phase-out of hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants that destroy the ozone layer.
When it was agreed 20 years ago, the Montreal Protocol allowed developing countries to increase their HCFC production until 2016, and maintain that level until 2040. But that timetable is now seen as too lenient, with booming demand for air conditioning in China and India.
Under the new deal, developing countries must freeze production by 2013, at the average 2009-10 production levels. They must then phase out HCFC use by 2030 - a 10 year advance on the previous target. Developed countries have also agreed to push forward their target by 10 years - phasing out HCFCs by 2020.
European Institute gets green light
The European Institute of Technology (modelled on the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology) was given preliminary approval by a European Parliament vote on 26 September.
The EIT has yet to attract firm financial backing, though European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso's 2006 vision foresaw start-up finance from industry and the EU totalling 2.4 billion (£1.7 billion) for 2008-2013. A week prior to the Parliament's vote, the Commission published rescue plans which would see some 309 million diverted from other areas including the EU's Framework 7 research programme for 2007-2013.
Meanwhile, EU member states are beginning to clamour for the kudos - and cash - they might attract by hosting the EIT governing board. Initially, the administrative unit will be the only tangible manifestation of a 'virtual university' launched on a pilot scale as two or three research collaborations with industry.
Enzyme trapped in viral jail
Researchers in the Netherlands have created a biochemical nanoreactor by trapping a single enzyme molecule in a viral protein coat.
Marta Comellas-Aragonès and colleagues split open the protein coat of the cowpea chlorotic mottle virus by altering the pH. They then reassembled the coat proteins around the horseradish peroxidase enzyme, trapping a single molecule of the enzyme inside each virus.
Substrate molecules could enter the viral shell, and products diffuse out. The researchers hope the nanoreactor may provide a way of studying a single enzyme molecule, without the usual inconvenience of having to physically or chemically tether the enzyme to a surface, which can change its activity. The enclosed environment within the virus also more closely mimics the small spaces within a cell (see also career profile, p87).
Results are published in Nature Nanotechnology(DOI: 10.1038/nnano.2007.299)
Fuelling up for Chemistry Week
Chemistry Week 2007 runs from 3-11 November, based on the theme of 'travel'. A 'fuelling the future' national tour will promote the contribution chemistry can make to alternative fuel technologies, while a range of events will take place all over the UK and Ireland, including exhibitions, lectures, demonstrations, competitions, debates and industrial visits.
The RSC's Chemistry Week is a themed series of events held every two years to promote a positive image of chemistry and increase the public understanding of the importance of chemical science in our everyday lives.
For full details of all events, go to Chemistry Week web site.
Ozone theory challenged
New data collected by chemists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, appear to refute established theories of ozone chemistry. A key step in the breakdown of ozone in the stratosphere is the photolysis of dichlorine peroxide (Cl2O2), which generates the chlorine radicals that attack the ozone layer. Markus Rex and colleagues were surprised to find that the rate of this photolysis is far lower than previously thought - meaning that nearly 60 per cent of observed ozone depletion at the poles is now due to an unknown mechanism. The results were unveiled at a conference in Bremen, Germany, and published in J. Phys. Chem (DOI:10.1021/jp067660w). Nature News reported that many researchers in the field are now urgently seeking a viable alternative theory.
Of mice and magnetoresistance
The 2007 Physics Nobel prize was awarded to Frenchman Albert Fert and German Peter Grünberg, for their 1988 discovery of giant magnetoresistance (GMR) - the effect that makes it possible to read the densely-packed magnetic data in today's tiny high-capacity hard disks, and which was credited for aiding development of the iPod (left). The researchers showed how tiny magnetic domains could be detected because the small changes they forced in the magnetism of iron/chromium multilayers greatly affected those materials' electrical resistance (the GMR effect).
The prize for Physiology or Medicine went to Italian Mario Capecchi, Briton Martin Evans, and British-born Oliver Smithies. They were honoured for working out how to introduce genetic modifications into mice - creating so-called 'knockout' mice - using embryonic stem cells. The approach, used for understanding the function of particular genes, has had an enormous impact on biomedical research.
The Peace prize went to former US vice-president Al Gore and the committee of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while the Chemistry prize was won by German Gerhard Ertl for his contribution to surface science.
Nano-guidance code offered
The Royal Society, Insight Investment, the Nanotechnology Industries Association and the Nanotechnology Knowledge Transfer Network, together with a sheaf of scientists and representatives from chemical companies, government, trade unions and consumer groups, have launched a 'Responsible Nanocode', for businesses working with nanotechnology.
The working group hopes that the voluntary code will establish internationally relevant principles for good practice, and guide businesses while officials are discussing what to do about regulation. A consultation on the code runs until 12 November; for details see website.
Europe backs hydrogen cars
The European Commission has adopted two proposals to help develop and market cars running on hydrogen fuel.
In a new Joint Technology Initiative, the EU will contribute €470 million over the next six years (from its Framework 7 Program) to a public-private partnership for research developing hydrogen fuel cells. That amount would be matched by industrial partners, perhaps including BMW, Daimler and Fiat. And the EU also suggests including hydrogen vehicles in its car-type approval system, which would simplify the regulations needed to put hydrogen cars on the road.
Both proposals still have to be approved by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.
Researchers' visa not implemented
Nineteen member states of the EU missed the 12 October deadline for implementing the 'researchers' visa': a system helping scientists from outside the EU conduct research in Europe. It's a key step in making the 'European Research Area' more attractive (see Chemistry World, August 2007, p2).
Also of interest
This year's Nobel prize in chemistry has highlighted the importance of surface chemistry in modern life. Richard Van Noorden catches up with the winner, Gerhard Ertl