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Science & Innovation

We need to create more diverse paths into research and scientific innovation. Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, explains how industry clusters and a change of mindset could help.

What do you picture when someone mentions a chemist? Maybe you see someone like you working in a lab or office with your colleagues.

But what do people at the bus stop think? What would a secondary school student say? Do they see someone like them – or do they imagine an Einstein-like figure hidden away in a dark room with crazed hair and test tubes?

One of the most interesting messages from Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser’s Fuelling the Future: science, society and the research and innovation system talk on 29 September was the need to make sure science and technology are seen as viable careers for people throughout society.

SCIblog - 12 October 2021 - Making science and technology more accessible - image of Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser

Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser

You don’t need to be a genius to work in research and innovation. You don’t necessarily need to be a specialist, and you certainly don’t need to be hunched over a microscope with a jumble of figures and formulae on a board behind you. An array of different people, technical and non-technical, are needed to make the sector thrive.

 

The narrow pathway of talent

Part of Dame Ottoline’s job as Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is to improve access to these sectors and to make sure that great ideas aren’t lost due to daunting entry barriers.

‘It’s a huge challenge,’ she said. ‘A large part of the challenge is the narrow concept that we all have of what a researcher and innovator look like.’

Leyser spoke about the need to create diverse routes through the system rather than squeezing everyone through the same narrow path. ‘The assessment criteria we use for individuals have become narrower and narrower,’ she added. ‘Some of it, ironically, is to make the system fairer, but objectivity in creativity is a total pipe dream. You end up crushing creativity by narrowing the criteria.’

She noted that those with mixed careers – interwoven with varied experiences – are to be welcomed. ‘That’s nothing to do with compromising excellence,’ she said. ‘Real excellence comes in multiple forms.’

>> Would you like to attend more talks like this one? Check out our Events page.

 

Challenging times

However, Leyser also spoke of the need to level up the UK from a productivity perspective. One way to do this is through smart specialisation and industry clusters. She mentioned Lincoln as an area where this approach worked well. Lincoln is home to extensive agriculture and the multinational technology corporation Siemens. As such, it made sense to help make it a centre for agricultural robotics.

SCIblog - 12 October 2021 - Making science and technology more accessible - image of a wind turbine

UKRI is investing heavily in research and innovation into Net Zero energy solutions.

As the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK, UKRI has a major role to play in funding such industry clusters and intelligent innovation. It has funded more than 54,000 researchers and innovators, and UKRI grants have generated almost 900 spinouts since 2004.

These include Oxford Nanopore, a biotech company whose DNA sequencing technology is now valued at £2.5bn. It has also cast an eye on the future, including delivering more than £1bn in R&D relevant to Artificial Intelligence and in excess of £1bn towards Net Zero energy solutions.

Leyser noted that the UKRI’s goal is to embed research and innovation more broadly across society – for it to be ‘by the people and for the people, rather than the exclusive domain of the privileged few’.

It is a grand challenge, but such sentiments are certainly encouraging.

Agrifood

More people are looking at their nutritional intake, not only to improve wellbeing but also reduce their environmental impact. With this, comes a move to include foods that are not traditionally cultivated or consumed in Europe.

Assessing whether this growing volume of so called ‘novel foods’ are safe for human consumption is the task of the European Food Safety Authority. The EFSA points out, ‘The notion of novel food is not new. Throughout history new types of food and food ingredients have found their way to Europe from all corners of the globe. Bananas, tomatoes, tropical fruit, maize, rice, a wide range of spices – all originally came to Europe as novel foods. Among the most recent arrivals are chia seeds, algae-based foods, baobab fruit and physalis.’

Under EU regulations any food not consumed ‘significantly’ prior to May 1997 is considered to be a ‘novel food’. The category covers new foods, food from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food. Examples include oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids from krill as a new source of food, phytosterols as a new substance, or nanotechnology as a new way of producing food.

Providing a final assessment on safety and efficacy of a novel food is a time consuming process. At the start of 2021 the EFSA gave its first completed assessment of a proposed insect-derived food product. The panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens concluded that the novel food dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption.

SCIblog 28 January 2021 - Novel Foods - image of mealworms

Dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption, according to the EFSA.

Commenting in a press statement, as the opinion on insect novel food was released, Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at EFSA who coordinated the assessment said that evaluating the safety of insects for human consumption has its challenges. ‘Insects are complex organisms which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived products a challenge. Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed,’

Ververis added, ‘Formulations from insects may be high in protein, although the true protein levels can be overestimated when the substance chitin, a major component of insects’ exoskeleton, is present. Critically, many food allergies are linked to proteins so we assess whether the consumption of insects could trigger any allergic reactions. These can be caused by an individual’s sensitivity to insect proteins, cross-reactivity with other allergens or residual allergens from insect feed, e.g. gluten.’

SCIblog 28 January 2021 - Novel Foods - image of a German supermarket selection

EFSA research could lead to increased choice for consumers | Editorial credit: Raf Quintero / Shutterstock.com

The EFSA has an extensive list of novel foods to assess. These include dried crickets (Gryllodes sigillatus), olive leaf extract, and vitamin D2 mushroom powder. With the increasing desire to find alternatives to the many foods that we consume on a regular basis, particularly meat, it is likely that the EFSA will be busy for some time to come.

Materials

Dinosaurs were some of the largest creatures to ever roam the Earth, but the mystery of how they supported their great weight remains. A new study published in PLOS ONE now indicates that the answer may lie in their unique bone structure, which differs from mammals and birds.

The bone is made up of different layers of different consistency, including the spongy interior, or trabecular. This part of the bone is formed of porous, honeycomb like structures.

A group of inter-disciplinary researchers, including palaeontologists, mechanical engineers, and biomedical engineers, analysed trabecular bone structure in a range of dinosaur samples, ranging from only 23 kg to 8000 kg in body mass. Their study found that the structure of dinosaur bones possessed unique properties allowing them to support large weights.

‘The structure of the trabecular, or spongy bone that forms in the interior of bones we studied is unique within dinosaurs,’ said Tony Fiorillo, palaeontologist and one of the study authors. ‘Unlike in mammals and birds, the trabecular bone does not increase in thickness as the body size of dinosaurs increase, instead it increases in density of the occurrence of spongy bone. Without this weight-saving adaptation, the skeletal structure needed to support the hadrosaurs would be so heavy, the dinosaurs would have had great difficulty moving.’

Their analysis included scanning the distal femur and proximal tibia bones from dinosaur fossils, and modelling how mechanical behaviour may have occurred. The research team also used allometry scaling – a method of understanding how physical characteristics change with physical size. They then compared the architecture of the bones to scans of both living and extinct large animals, such as Asian elephants and mammoths.

a walking cartoon dinosaur gif

Originally posted by manucalavera

Researchers hope that they can apply their findings to design other lightweight structures such as those used in aerospace, construction, or vehicles.

‘Understanding the mechanics of the trabecular architecture of dinosaurs may help us better understand the design of other lightweight and dense structures,’ said Trevor Aguirre, mechanical engineer and lead author of the paper.

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0237042


Health & Wellbeing

According to two studies published in The BMJ, higher consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grain foods is linked with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In the first study, a team of European researchers examined the link between vitamin C, carotenoids and type 2 diabetes.

The findings were based on 9754 participants with type 2 diabetes, compared with a group of  12,622 individuals who were free of diabetes. All of the participants were part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort totalling 340 234 people.

The results revealed that individuals with the highest intake of fruits and vegetables reduced the  risk of developing diabetes by up to 50%.

 Fresh fruit and vegetables

Fresh fruit and vegetables 

The results also showed that increasing intake of fruit and vegetables by 66g per day was linked with a 25% decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In the second study, researchers in the United States examined the association between whole grain food intake and type 2 diabetes.

Their research involved 158,259 women and 36,525 men who were diabetes, heart disease and cancer free and who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.

 Healthy heart

Healthy heart

Those with the highest intake of whole grains had a 29% lower rate of developing type 2 diabetes compared with those who consumed the least amount. With regards to individual whole grain foods, those with an intake of one or more servings a day of whole grain cold breakfast cereal or dark bread, were associated with a 19% or 21% lower risk of type 2 diabetes, compared with the participants consuming less than one serving a month.

 Fresh bread

Fresh bread

Although both studies took into account several well-known lifestyle risk factors and markers of dietary health, both studies are observational, therefore it should be considered that some of the results may be due to unmeasured factors.  

These new research findings provide more evidence that increasing fruit, vegetable and whole grain foods can lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

DOI: https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m2194


Health & Wellbeing

Here is a roundup on some of the most recent research and scientific efforts against the coronavirus.  

Novartis:

Novartis has reached an agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration to proceed with a phase III clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized Covid-19 patients. The large trial will be conducted at more than a dozen sites in the US and tested on approximately 440 patients to evaluate the use for this treatment.  

Additionally, Norvatis plans to make its hydroxychloroquine intellectual property available to support broad access to hydroxychloroquine. Read more here.  

 Causaly

Causaly

Causaly, an innovative technology company that harnesses AI to interpret vast databases of biomedical knowledge, is collaborating with UCL academics to increase research on potential therapeutic agents and the identification of biomarkers.

Several researchers and research groups within UCL have been granted access to Causaly technology, allowing them the access to rapidly analyse and derive insights from biomedical literature.

Read more here.

 Causaly technology

Vaccine Taskforce

As part of the UK’s wider efforts to support the development of a vaccine, a new government-led Vaccine Taskforce will soon be launched to drive forward the manufacturing and research efforts to fight the virus.

The government will review regulations to facilitate fast and safe vaccine trials, as well as operational plans, to ensure a vaccine can be produced at a large scale when it becomes available. Industry and academic institutions will be given the resources and support needed.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said, ‘UK scientists are working as fast as they can to find a vaccine that fights coronavirus, saving and protecting people’s lives. We stand firmly behind them in their efforts. The Vaccine Taskforce is key to coordinating efforts to rapidly accelerate the development and manufacture of a potential new vaccine.’  Read more here.

 covid19sample

A new biosensor for the COVID-19 virus

Research teams at Empa and ETH Zurich have developed an alternative test method in the form of an optical biosensor. The sensor made up of gold nanostructure, known as gold nonoislands on a glass substrate, combines two different effects to detect covid-19: an optical and a thermal one.

According to the release, ‘Artificially produced DNA receptors that match specific RNA sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 [virus] are grafted onto the nanoislands,’ and researchers will then use the optical phenomena, - localised surface plasmon resonance - to monitor the presence of the virus.

The biosensor is not yet ready to be used to monitor and detect COVID-19, however tests showed the sensor can distinguish between very similar RNA sequences of SARS-CoV-2 virus and its relative, SARS-Cov. Read more here.

For more information and more updates on the coronavirus, please visit our hub here.


Sustainability & Environment

The first splashes of yellow are starting to appear across our gardens and parks so it must be nearly daffodil time. There are over 10,000 narcissus cultivars and ‘Carlton’ is the most commonly grown of all. There are 5,300 hectares of this cultivar grown in the UK for cut flowers alone. This cultivar was first registered in 1927 and it is estimated that there are now 350,000 tons of it (or 9450 million bulbs)! Is this the most massive plant taxon on earth? 
 narcissus cultivars

March in the SCIence Garden

Narcissus was the classical Greek name of a beautiful youth who became so entranced with his own reflection that he killed himself and all that was left was a flower – a Narcissus. The word is possibly derived from an ancient Iranian language. But the floral narcissi are not so self-obsessed. As a member of the Amaryllidaceae, a family known for containing biologically active alkaloids, it is no surprise to learn that they contain a potent medicinal agent. 

Narcissus (and in particular this cultivar) are an excellent source of galanthamine, a drug more commonly associated with snowdrops (Galanthus spp.). Galanthamine is currently recommended for the treatment of moderate Alzheimer’s disease by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) but is very effective in earlier stages of the disease too. 

 Galanthamine

Galanthamine

Today, part of the commercial supply of this molecule comes from chemical synthesis, itself an amazing chemical achievement due to the structural complexity of the molecule, and partly from the natural product isolated from different sources across the globe. In China, Lycoris radiata is grown as a crop, in Bulgaria, Leucojum aestivum is farmed and in the UK the humble daffodil, Narcissus ‘Carlton’ is the provider.

 Narcissus

Narcissus ‘Carlton’ growing on large scale

Agroceutical Products, was established in 2012 to commercialise the research of Trevor Walker and colleagues who developed a cost effective, reliable and scalable method for producing galanthamine by extraction from Narcissus. They discovered the “Black Mountains Effect” – the increased production of galanthamine in the narcissus when they are grown under stress conditions at 1,200 feet. With support from Innovate UK and other organisations, the process is still being developed. Whilst not a full scale commercial production process just yet, the work is ongoing. As well as providing a supply of the much needed drug, this company may be showing the Welsh farming community how to secure additional income from their land. They continue to look for partners who have suitable land over 1000 ft in elevation. 

The estimated global patient population for Alzheimer’s in 2010 was 30 million. It is expected to reach 120 million by 2050.  The global market for Alzheimer’s disease drugs for 2019 was US$ 2870 million. 


Health & Wellbeing

Who is Dmitri Mendeleev?

Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev was born in 1834 in a Siberian village. His early life has been described as tumultuous; his father lost his sight and died when Dmitri was thirteen, leaving his family in financial difficulties.

His mother prioritised Dmitiri’s academic potential, taking him and his sister to St Petersburg, where he studied at the Main Pedagogical Institute. When his mother died, he carried out his doctoral research in St Petersburg where he explored the interactions of alcohols with water.

 St Petersburg

Between 1859 and 1861 he went to Paris to study the densities of gases, and he travelled to Germany where he studied capillarity and surface tension that subsequently led to his theory of ‘absolute boiling point.’ In 1861 he returned to Russia to publish everything he knew on organic chemistry in a 500-page textbook, and by 1864 he became a professor at the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute and Saint Petersburg State University.

As he continued his research, he tried to classify the elements according to the chemical properties. He became aware of a repeating pattern – elements with similar properties appeared at regular intervals. He arranged the elements in order of increasing relative atomic mass and noticed the chemical properties of these elements revealed a trend, which led to the formation of the periodic table.

 periodic table

Beyond his work in chemistry, during the 1870s, he devoted time to help the Russian industry, particularly in strengthening the productivity in agriculture. He became very active in exploring the Russian petroleum industry and developed projects in the coal industry in the Donets Basin. Additionally, he was responsible for creating and introducing the metric system to Russia.

 chalkboard

Careers

The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers. 

Juan Carlos De la Concepcion was awarded one of the 2018 David Miller Travel Bursaries to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy, which was held in Boston, US. Here, he details his experience attending the international conference and the opportunities it provided.

 Juan Carlos De la Concepcion

I’m currently completing the third-year of my rotation PhD in Plant and Microbial Science at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My work addresses how plant pathogens cause devastating diseases that affect food security worldwide, and how plants can recognise them and organise an immune response to keep themselves healthy. 

Because of the tremendous damage that plant diseases cause in agricultural and horticulturally relevant species, this topic has become central to achieving the UN Zero Hunger challenge.

Originally posted by thingsfromthedirt

Thanks to the David Miller Award, I was able to participate in the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy held in Boston, US. This event is the major international conference in the plant pathology field and only occurs once every five years. 

This year, the conference gathered together over 2,700 attendees, representing the broad international community of plant pathologist across the globe. In this conference, the leading experts in the different aspects of the field presented the latest advances and innovations. 

 rice plant

Juan’s current research looks at the rice plant’s immune response to pathogens.

These experts are setting a vision and future directions for tackling some of the most damaging plant diseases in the agriculture and horticulture industries, ensuring enough food productivity in a global economy.

Sustainability & Environment

In an era of glass and steel construction, wood may seem old-school. But researchers are currently saying its time to give timber a makeover and bring to use a material that is able to store and release heat.

Transparent wood could be the construction material of choice for eco-friendly houses of the future, after researchers have now created an even more energy efficient version that not only transmits light but also absorbs and releases heat, potentially saving on energy bills.

 open window gif

Originally posted by dinsintegration

Researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reported in 2019 that they would add polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) to the formulation to stabilise the wood.

PEG can go really deep into the wood cells and store and release heat. Known as a phase change material, PEG is a solid that melts at 80°F – storing energy in the process. This process reverses at night when the PEG re-solidifies, turning the window glass opaque and releasing heat to maintain a constant temperature in the house.

Transparent wood for windows and green architecture. Video: Wise Wanderer

In principle, a whole house could be made from the wooden window glass, which is due to the property of PEG. The windows could be adapted for different climates by simply tailoring the molecular weight of the PEG, to raise or lower its melting temperature depending on the location.



Health & Wellbeing

A 3D printed hydrogel structure can absorb metal pollutants in water significantly faster than solid alternatives.

a running water tap

Clean and fresh water is essential for human life, and water is a necessity to agricultural and other industries. However, global population growth and pollution from industrial waste has put a strain in local fresh water resources.

 hydrogel showing polymer chains

A hydrogel is made up of polymer chains that are hydrophilic (attracted to water) and are known for being highly absorbent.

Current clean-up costs can be extremely expensive, leaving poorer and more remote populations at risk to exposure of metal pollutants such as lead, mercury, cadmium and copper, which can lead to severe effects on the neurological, reproductive and immune systems.

Now, a group of scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas, US, have developed a 3D printable hydrogel that is capable of 95% metal removal within 30 minutes.

brushing teeth gif

Originally posted by biscuitsarenice

Clean water is also needed for one’s hygiene, including brushing your teeth and bathing.

The hydrogel is made from a cheap, abundant biopolymer chitosan and diacrylated pluronic, which forms cDAP. The cDAP mixture is then loaded into the printer as a liquid and allowed to cool to <4⁰C, before rising again to room temperature to form a gel that can be used to produce various 3D printed shapes.

The Dallas team also tested the reusability of their hydrogel and found that it had a recovery rate of 98% after five cycles of use, proving it to be a potentially reliable resource to communities with limited fresh water supply.

.

Life without clean water. Video: charitywater

‘This novel and cost-effective approach to remove health and environmental hazards could be useful for fabricating cheap and safe water filtration devices on site in polluted areas without the need for industrial scale manufacturing tools,’ the paper reads.


Careers

Jenny Gracie was awarded a Messel Travel Bursary for an internship with the Naked Scientists based at the University of Cambridge. Here she describes how her internship has helped her to develop her skills and confidence in science communication, which she can now use to help shape her future career.

 Jenny in The Naked Scientists studio

Jenny in The Naked Scientists studio.


I am currently in the final year of a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde. My project seeks to better treat cardiovascular disease, which is still the world’s leading cause of death. I am working towards a drug delivery system which utilises hollow gold nanoparticles as a ‘vehicle’ for delivering statins to the fatty plaques that block the arteries. Although I’m still interested in my research project, I’ve developed a real enthusiasm for science communication over the last few years and would like pursue a career in this field.

As a STEM ambassador I have attended fairs, festivals and schools to help spark a curiosity in science among children. During my PhD, the opportunity of an eight-week internship with The Naked Scientists came up, and I simply couldn’t let it pass. Without the funding support from SCI I could not have taken the internship, and so I am extremely grateful for the Messel Travel Bursary, and I know that this contribution helped make this transformative career experience a reality.

funny gif

Originally posted by healthyhappysexywealthy

The Naked Scientists are an award-winning science production group based at the University of Cambridge. They create one of the world’s most popular science shows, achieving over 50m downloads in the last five years. They broadcast weekly on BBC Cambridgeshire, BBC 5Live, ABC National Radio in Australia and also publish a podcast of the show. Podcasts are free, available on-demand and are a widely accessible source of science information to the general public. The Naked Scientist internship programme develops the skill set of early career communicators and provides first-hand experience in the world of science media communication.

Podcast production has grown exponentially in the last few years, however chemistry still remains underrepresented compared to the other traditional physical sciences, like physics and biology. As a chemist who is interested in a career in science communication, this role has allowed me to gain the necessary skills to make my own podcasts in the future.

chemistry gif

Originally posted by luciela-marche

As an intern I was part of the production team from the first day! It was a catapult into the world of radio broadcast and podcast production, but perfect for understanding how a show is produced from scratch. Our weekly show consisted of two parts – one half would cover the news and recently published articles, and the second half would cover a specific topic within science.

Media privileges gave me access to all the journals to be published that week, with them sealed under embargo until publication. We tended to pick articles that have a global impact and capture the interest of the listener. Each team member would be assigned an article, and we would then have to contact the authors to scope the story and arrange a recorded interview. The skills I required to organise and execute a good interview improved over the course of the eight weeks. I could see a real development in both my style and confidence.

funny gif

Originally posted by itslilky

During the internship I also learned how to use software to edit audio, and stitch together multiple tracks to create build pieces with music and sound effects. To accompany the interview, each week we also wrote a short article on the research. This required converting high-level science into a form that could be understood by the general public… something that is much harder than it sounds!


Health & Wellbeing

Macular degeneration is a leading cause of blindness – and emerging techniques to treat it could see the end of painful eye injections.

Macular degeneration

Of all places to have an injection, the eyeball is probably near the bottom of anybody’s list. Yet this is how macular degeneration – the leading cause of sight loss in the developed world – is commonly treated.

 Macular degeneration blurred vision

Individuals who have macular degeneration will have blurred or no vision in the center of their visual fields (as shown above).

In the UK, nearly 1.5m people are affected by macular disease, according to the Macular Society. In its commonest ‘wet’ form, macular degeneration is caused by the growth of rogue blood vessels at the back of the eye, due to over-production of a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).

The blood vessels leak, causing damage to the central part of the retina – the macula – and a loss of central vision. Regular injections of so-called anti-VEGF drugs help to alleviate the problem.

eye gif

Originally posted by f-u-g-i-t-i-v-o

As well as being time-consuming, these injections can be stressful and upsetting for sufferers, many of whom are elderly. Because the condition is prevalent among older people, it is usually referred to as age-related macular degeneration, or AMD.

However, a number of emerging treatments – including eye drops, inserts and a modified ‘contact lens’ – could spell the end of regular injections, and treat the condition less invasively.

Anatomy of the eye. Video: Handwritten Tutorials

At the same time, emerging stem cell therapy, which has reversed sight loss for two patients with the ‘dry’ form of macular degeneration, could find wider use within a few years.


Health & Wellbeing

Organised by the National Human Genome Research Institute each year, National DNA Day in the US on 25 April celebrates the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Here, we explore the history of DNA and its discovery’s unparalleled effect on science, medicine and the way we now understand the human body.


Discovering DNA’s structure

In 1952, a young female scientist Rosalind Franklin at Kings’ College London took the first known picture of DNA in its helical structure using x-ray crystallography.

­Using the pictures that she had taken, Franklin was able to calculate the dimensions of the strands and found the phosphates were on the outside of the DNA helix.

 Rosalind Franklin working in her lab

Rosalind Franklin working in her lab. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, at the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the double-helix structure of DNA, describing it as ‘two helical chains each coiled round the same axis’ following a right-handed helix containing phosphate diester groups joining β-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3’,5’ linkages.

The discoveries made by these scientists would propel the study of genetics into the modern science we know today. Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine alongside Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Rosalind Franklin, in 1962. You can read their original paper here.


Dolly the sheep

 Dolly on display at the National Museum of Scotland UK

Dolly on display at the National Museum of Scotland, UK.

Dolly is arguably the most famous sheep in the world, having been the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Born in 1996, Dolly was part of a series of experiments at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh to create GM livestock that could be used in scientific experiments.

She was cloned using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, where a cell nucleus from one adult is transferred into an unfertilised developing egg cell of another that has had its nucleus removed, which is then implanted into a surrogate mother.

The scientific legacy of Dolly the sheep. Video: Al Jazeera English

Dolly lived until 2003 when she was euthanised after contracting a form of lung cancer. Many speculated that Dolly’s early death was related to the cloning experiment but extensive health screening throughout Dolly’s life by the Roslin Institute suggest otherwise.

Her creation has led to further cloning projects and could be used in the future to preserve the populations of endangered or extinct species, and has led to significant developments in stem cell research.

In 2009, Spanish researchers announced the cloning of a Pyrenean ibex, which has been extinct since 2000, and was the first cloning of an extinct animal. Unfortunately, the ibex died shortly after birth but there have been a few successful stories since then.


The Human Genome Project

human genome gif

Originally posted by teded

Beginning in 1990 and finishing in 2003, the Human Genome Project was an international research initiative that aimed to write the entire sequence of nucleotide base pairs that make up the human genome, including the mapping of all its genes that determine our physical and functional attributes.

The publicly funded $3bn project was able to map 99% of the human genome with 99.99% accuracy, which included its 3.2bn Mega-base pairs, 20,000 genes and 23 chromosome pairs, and has led to advancements in bioinformatics, personalised medicine and a deeper understanding of human evolution.



Health & Wellbeing

Organised by the National Human Genome Research Institute each year, National DNA Day in the US on 25 April celebrates the discovery of DNA’s double helix in 1953 and the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. Here, we explore the history of DNA and its discovery’s unparalleled effect on science, medicine and the way we now understand the human body.


Discovering DNA’s structure

In 1952, a young female scientist Rosalind Franklin at Kings’ College London took the first known picture of DNA in its helical structure using x-ray crystallography.

­Using the pictures that she had taken, Franklin was able to calculate the dimensions of the strands and found the phosphates were on the outside of the DNA helix.

 Rosalind Franklin working in her lab

Rosalind Franklin working in her lab. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, at the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the double-helix structure of DNA, describing it as ‘two helical chains each coiled round the same axis’ following a right-handed helix containing phosphate diester groups joining β-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3’,5’ linkages.

The discoveries made by these scientists would propel the study of genetics into the modern science we know today. Crick and Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine alongside Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Rosalind Franklin, in 1962. You can read their original paper here.


Dolly the sheep

 Dolly on display at the National Museum of Scotland UK

Dolly on display at the National Museum of Scotland, UK.

Dolly is arguably the most famous sheep in the world, having been the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Born in 1996, Dolly was part of a series of experiments at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh to create GM livestock that could be used in scientific experiments.

She was cloned using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, where a cell nucleus from one adult is transferred into an unfertilised developing egg cell of another that has had its nucleus removed, which is then implanted into a surrogate mother.

The scientific legacy of Dolly the sheep. Video: Al Jazeera English

Dolly lived until 2003 when she was euthanised after contracting a form of lung cancer. Many speculated that Dolly’s early death was related to the cloning experiment but extensive health screening throughout Dolly’s life by the Roslin Institute suggest otherwise.

Her creation has led to further cloning projects and could be used in the future to preserve the populations of endangered or extinct species, and has led to significant developments in stem cell research.

In 2009, Spanish researchers announced the cloning of a Pyrenean ibex, which has been extinct since 2000, and was the first cloning of an extinct animal. Unfortunately, the ibex died shortly after birth but there have been a few successful stories since then.


The Human Genome Project

human genome gif

Originally posted by teded

Beginning in 1990 and finishing in 2003, the Human Genome Project was an international research initiative that aimed to write the entire sequence of nucleotide base pairs that make up the human genome, including the mapping of all its genes that determine our physical and functional attributes.

The publicly funded $3bn project was able to map 99% of the human genome with 99.99% accuracy, which included its 3.2bn Mega-base pairs, 20,000 genes and 23 chromosome pairs, and has led to advancements in bioinformatics, personalised medicine and a deeper understanding of human evolution.



Science & Innovation

Researchers have created a new extremely light and durable ceramic aerogel. The material could be useful for applications like insulating spacecraft because it can withstand intense heat and severe temperature changes. 

rocket taking off

The aerogel could be used to coat spacecrafts due to its resilience to certain conditions.

The aerogel comprises a network of tiny air pockets, with each pocket separated by two atomically thin layers of hexagonal boron nitride. It’s at least 99% space. To build the aerogel, Duan’s team used a graphene template coated with borazine, which forms crystalline boron nitride when heated. When the graphene template oxidises, this leaves a ‘double-pane’ boron nitride structure.

 aerogel

The basis of the newly developed aerogel is the 2D structure of graphene.

‘The key to the durability of our new ceramic aerogel is its unique architecture,’ says study co-author Xiangfeng Duan of the University of California, US. 

‘The “double-pane” ceramic barrier makes it difficult for heat to transfer from one air bubble to another, or to spread through the material by traveling along the hexagonal boron nitride layers themselves, because that would require following long, circuitous routes.’

How does Aerogel technology work? Video: Outdoor Research

Unlike other ceramic aerogels, the material doesn’t become brittle under extreme conditions. The new aerogel withstood 500 cycles of rapid heating and cooling from -198°C to 900°C, as well as 1400°C for one week. A piece of the insulator shielded a flower held over a 500°C flame.

 

Materials

2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today we look at mercury and some of its reactions.

 Mercury

Mercury is a silver, heavy, liquid metal. Though mercury is a liquid at room temperature, as a solid it is very soft. Mercury has a variety of uses, mainly in thermometers or as an alloy for tooth fillings.


Mercury & Aluminium

 mercury gif

Mercury is added directly to aluminium after the oxide layer is removed. Source: NileRed

The reaction between mercury and aluminium forms an amalgam (alloy of mercury). The aluminium’s oxide layer is disturbed When the amalgam forms, in the following reaction:

Al+ Hg → Al.Hg

Some of the Al.Mg get’s dissolved in the mercury. The aluminium from the amalgam then reacts with the air to form white aluminium oxide fibres, which grow out of the solid metal.


Mercury & Bromine

 mercury and bromine gif

Mercury and bromine are the only two elements that are liquid at room temperature on the periodic table. Source: Gooferking Science

When mercury and bromine are added together they form mercury(I) bromide in the following reaction:

Hg2 + Br2 → Hg2Br2

This reaction is unique as mercury can form a metal-metal covalent bond, giving   mercury(I) bromide a structure of Br-Hg-Hg-Br

 

Pharaoh’s Serpent

 igniting mercury

Making the Pharaoh's Serpent by igniting mercury (II) thiocyanate. Source: NileRed

The first step of this reaction is to generate water-soluble mercury (II) nitrate by combining mercury and concentrate nitric acid. The reaction goes as follows:

Hg + 4NO3 → Hg(NO3)2 + 2H2O + 2NO2

Next, the reaction is boiled to remove excess NO2 and convert mercury(I) nitrate by-product to mercury (II) nitrate. The mixture is them washed with water and potassium thiocyanate added to the mercury (II) nitrate:

Hg(NO3)+ 2KSCN→ Hg(SCN)2 + 2KNO3

The mercury (II) thiocyanate appears as a white solid. After this is dried, it can be ignited to produce the Pharaoh’s serpent, as it is converted to mercury sulfide in the following reaction:

Hg(SCN)2 → 2HgS + CS2 + + C3N4

The result is the formation of a snake-like structure. Many of the final products of this process are highly toxic, so although this used to be used as a form of firework, it is no longer commercially available.

Though many reactions of mercury look like a lot of fun, mercury and many of it’s products is highly toxic - so don’t try these at home!


Sustainability & Environment

While concerns about air pollution for vehicles, power stations etc make headline news, the quality of the air in our houses is overlooked, according to researchers at the 2019 AAAS meeting held in Washington DC, US, from 14 to 17 February 2019.

Cooking, cleaning and other routine household tasks generate significant quantities of volatile and particulate chemicals inside the average home, leading to indoor air quality levels on a par with a polluted major city, said a researcher from Colorado University Boulder, US. 

cartoon kitchen gif

Originally posted by akrokus

Not only that but these chemicals, from products such as shampoo, perfume and cleaning solutions also find their way into the external environment, making up an even greater source of global atmospheric pollution than vehicles.

‘Homes have never been considered an important source of outdoor pollution and the moment is right to start exploring that,’ said Marina Vance, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder. ‘We wanted to know how do basic activities such as cooking and cleaning change the chemistry of a house?’

First Conclusions from the HOMEChem Experiment. Video: Home Performance

In 2018, Vance co-led the collaborative HOMEChem field campaign, which used advanced sensors and cameras to monitor the indoor air quality of a 112m2 manufactured home on the University of Texas Austin campus. 

Over one month, Vance and her collaborators from a number of other US universities conducted a variety of activities, including cooking toast to a full thanksgiving dinner in the middle of the summer for 12 guests, as well as cleaning and similar tasks.

 

Health & Wellbeing

Each year, the World Health Organisation celebrates World Heath Day, an international health awareness day which aims to draw attention particular health challenges across the world. The theme for 2019 is universal health coverage for everyone, everywhere.

world health day globe

In honour of World Health Day, held on 7 April 2019 annually, we have collated the five most innovative healthcare projects we have featured on SCI’s website over the past year. 


New cardiac MRI scan improves diagnostic accuracy

beating heart gif

Originally posted by medschoolgeek

Using 2D imaging techniques to diagnose problems with the heart can be challenging due to the constant movement of the cardiac system. Currently, when a patient undergoes a cardiac MRI scan they have to hold their breath while the scan takes snapshots in time with their heartbeat.

Still images are difficult to obtain with this traditional technique as a beating heart and blood flow can blur the picture. This method becomes trickier if the individual has existing breathing problems or an irregular heartbeat.


3D cell aggregates could improve accuracy of drug screening

 3d cell

An innovative new screening method using cell aggregates shaped like spheres may lead to the discovery of smarter cancer drugs, a team from the Scripps Research Institute, California, US, has reported.

The 3D aggregates, called spheroids, can be used to obtain data from potentially thousands of compounds using high throughput screening (HTS). HTS can quickly identify active compounds and genes in a specific biomolecular pathway using robotics and data processing.


Antibiotic combinations could slow resistance

 antibiotics

Several thousand antibiotic combinations have been found to be more effective in treating bacterial infections than first thought.

Antibiotic combination therapies are usually avoided when treating bacterial infections, with scientists believing combinations are likely to reduce the efficacy of the drugs used. Now, a group at UCLA, USA, have identified over 8,000 antibiotic combinations that work more effectively than predicted.


Mechanism that delays and repairs cancerous DNA damage discovered

 microscope

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have identified a mechanism that prevents natural DNA errors in our cells. These errors can lead to permanent damage to our genetic code and potentially diseases such as cancer.

Mutations occurring in human DNA can lead to fatal diseases like cancer. It is well documented that DNA-damaging processes, such as smoking tobacco or being exposed to high levels of ultraviolet (UV) light through sunburn, can lead to increased risk of developing certain forms of cancer.


Alzheimer’s drugs made from Welsh daffodils

flowers gif

Originally posted by naturegifs

Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease can be expensive to produce, but by using novel cultivation of daffodils one small Welsh company has managed to find a cost-effective production method of one pharmaceutical drug, galanthamine.

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease with a range of symptoms, including language problems, memory loss, disorientation and mood swings. Despite this, the cause of Alzheimer’s is very understood. The Alzheimer’s disease drug market is currently worth an estimated US$8bn.


Materials

2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today we look at helium.

balloons

Originally posted by rusticstyle


Discovery

Helium was first discovered by French astronomer Jules Janssen in 1868 when observing the spectral lines of the Sun during a solar eclipse. He initially thought the unidentified line was sodium, later concluding it was an element in the sun unknown to Earth.

In March 1895, Sr William Ramsey, a Scottish chemist, isolated helium on Earth for the first time by treating a mineral called cleveite with mineral acids. He was initially looking for argon, but noticed his spectral lines matched that of Jules Janssen’s.

 balloons

Helium was discovered when Jules Janssen was observing the solar eclipse spectra.

Helium is a colourless, non-toxic and inert gas. It is the second lightest and second most abundant element in the universe.  


Applications

Helium is often used for cryogenic (cooling) purposes. Liquid helium has a temperature of -270°C or 4K, which is only 4°C above absolute zero. It is utilised for cooling super conducting magnets.

 MRI

Helium is used to cool superconducting magnets used in MRI. Image: Pixabay

Super conducting magnets have applications in imaging such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), used for analysing molecules, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a medical imaging device. These techniques are important for scientific research and medical diagnostics.

Helium can also be used a pressurising gas for welding and growing silicon wafer crystals, or as a lifting gas for balloons and airships.

 airship

Helium is also used in airships and balloons. Image: Pixabay


Squeaky voices

A commonly known use of helium is to fill balloons often found at parties and events. When people breathe in the helium gas from these balloons, their voice changes.

As helium is much less dense that nitrogen and oxygen, the two gases that make up regular air, sound travels twice as fast through it. When you speak through helium, the timbre or tone of your voice is affected by this change, causing it to appear higher in pitch.

Why is helium so important? Video: SciShow

Unfortunately, helium is a non-renewable resource, and reserves are running out. There is currently no cheap way to create helium, so industries need to be vigilant when using it, and we may see less helium balloons in the future.

 

Careers

Cassie Sims is a PhD student and SCI early career member, sitting on the committees of SCI’s Agrisciences Group and Agrifood Early Career Committee. Read more of Cassie’s work at soci.org/news and sciblog.com.

 child running gif

As part of my PhD programme – the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) with the University of Nottingham – I have had the opportunity to do a 12-week internship in something different to research. Today, I am going to tell you why I think every PhD student should step outside their comfort zone and do an internship.


1.       Expand your community

Doing a PhD internship allows you to temporarily leave the academic bubble, and meet some new and different people. During my internship, I had the opportunity to engage with members of SCI’s community, including a range of industrial partners, academics and other early career scientists.

black panther gif

Originally posted by brodiel

Attending events at SCI HQ has given me the chance to network with people I may never have met otherwise, gaining valuable connections and career advice. I was also able to see the range of work that goes on in chemistry and the chemical industry, including the variety of different career paths that are available.

Taking a step back from the practical side of science can also allow you to gain an appreciation for other areas of science. Learning about science in journalism and digital media will inform my decisions when trying to communicate my research to the general public in the future.

 reading newspaper gif

2.       Gain transferable skills

Undertaking an internship in an area that you are unfamiliar with will diversify your skills. Digital media has taught me many new skills, such as social media and Photoshop, but also refined skills that are valuable and transferable.

The main skills I have worked on are my writing and editing capabilities. I have found my flow for writing, learnt about proofreading, and refreshed my memory in grammar and spelling. These skills will be incredibly useful when trying to write a PhD thesis, and my experience will shine on my CV when applying for future jobs.

 friends gif

3.       A break from the lab

A PhD can be an overwhelming experience; sometimes it can feel like you are drowning in lab work and data analysis. Doing an internship means you can take a few months to escape, allowing you the chance to free your mind from data and reactions.

During my internship, I have had time to think about my research in more depth, considering options and planning, instead of rushing into things. The opportunity to take a step back means I will be re-entering the lab with clear, coherent plans and a new-found energy.

 phone gif

Although I have missed the rush of scientific research, my internship has taught me useful skills and allowed me to meet so many interesting people. I have really enjoyed my time in the SCI Digital Media team, and I would urge anyone considering an internship to take the leap. 

I hope to continue working with SCI through the Agri-Food Early Careers Committee and other SCI activities that I am involved with.


Policy

 Bright SCIdea Challenge 1

All Images: Andrew Lunn/SCI

On 19 March 2019, SCI hosted the second annual final of the Bright SCIdea Challenge, bringing together some of the brightest business minds of the future to pitch their science-based innovation to a panel of expert judges and a captivated audience.

As an opportunity to support UK/ROI students interested in commercialising their ideas and developing their business skills, the final included talks and training from our judges and networking with industry professionals.

 Bright SCIdea Challenge

The day started with a poster session and networking, including posters from teams Glubiotech, Online Analytics, HappiAppi and NovaCAT.

 Bright SCIdea Challenge
 Bright SCIdea Challenge

Training sessions came next, with Neil Wakemen from Alderley Park Accelerator speaking first on launching a successful science start-up.

 Bright SCIdea Challenge

Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne from Genius Foods spoke next on her personal business story, going from the kitchen to lab to supermarket shelves.

 Bright SCIdea Challenge

Participants could catch a glimpse of the trophies before giving their pitches.

 Bright SCIdea Challenge
 Bright SCIdea Challenge

The first team to pitch were Team Seta from UCL, with their idea for a high-throughput synthetic biology approach for biomaterials.

 Bright SCIdea Challenge
 Bright SCIdea Challenge

Team Plastech Innovation from Durham University presented their sustainable plastic-based concrete.

 Bright SCIdea Challenge 11
 

Closing the first session, Team DayDreamers. pitched their AI-driven mental wellness app.

 

The break was filled with networking between delegates and industry professionals.

 
 

Opening the second session, Team BRISL Antimicrobials, from UCL, showcased their innovative light-activated antimicrobial bristles that could be used in toothbrushes.

 
 

The final pitch of the day was from Team OxiGen, from the University of St Andrews, presenting their designer cell line for optimised protein expression.

 

After asking lots of questions during each pitch, the judges were left with the difficult task of deciding a winner.

 

Team HappiAppi, from Durham University, were voted the best poster by the audience!

 

The second runner-up was Team Seta!

 

The first runner-up was Team BRISL Antimicrobials!

 

Congratulations to the winners Team Plastech Innovation!! They win £5000 towards their idea.


We would like to thank our participating teams, sponsors (INEOS and Synthomer), guest speakers and judges (Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne, Robin Harrison, Inna Baigozina-Goreli, Ian Howell & Dave Freeman).


Science & Innovation

On 15 March 2019, chemists from across the UK country came to compete in the 6th National SCI/RSC Retrosynthesis Competition at SCI HQ in London.

 6th national SCI RSC competition

All images: Andrew Lunn/SCI

The event, organised by SCI’s Young Chemists Panel and Fine Chemicals Group, alongside RSC’s Heterocycle and Synthesis Group and Organic Division Council, saw 11 teams from across academia and industry to showcase their synthetic prowess.

At the event, the teams presented their synthetic routes for the novel sulfonated alkaloid Aconicarmisulfonine A. After their presentations, teams were questioned by the judges and audience on their synthetic route selections.

Scroll down to experience the day…

 

Chair of the Retrosynthesis Competition Organising Committee, Jason Camp, opens proceedings.

 
 

Live and Let Diene from Concept Life Sciences kick off the day’s pitches.

 

The Tryptophantastic Four from the University of Bristol followed.

 
 

Total Synthesisers from the University of Manchester deliver their synthesis model to a packed audience.

 

The Bloomsbury Group from the University of Manchester close the first session of the day.

 

During breaks, the competitors networked with senior scientists and our company exhibitors.

 

SygTeamTwo from Sygnature Discovery take to the podium.

 
 

The judges seem impressed with this year’s teams as Shawshank Reduction from the University of Oxford pitch next. 

 

Next up is In Tsuji We Trost from Evotec.

 
 

Totally Disconnected from the University of Strathclyde close the second session.

 
 

The competition gets more competitive and popular each year! SCI and RSC members discuss the teams so far.

 

Hold Me Closer Vinyl Dancer from the University of Cambridge are up.

 

Flower Power from Syngenta give an intriguing talk.

 

The second University of Oxford Team, Reflux and Chill?, finish the day’s impressive set of pitches.

 

Audience members then casted their votes for the Audience Vote winner…

 

…which went to In Tsuji We Trost!

 

Our 3rd place finalists were SygTeamTwo…

 

Oxford team Shawshank Reduction took 2nd place…

 

Congratulations to 2019 winners, Flower Power!


Sustainability & Environment

Scientists studying DNA in soil samples from Svalbard in the High Arctic have discovered a surprisingly large number of clinically-important antibiotic resistance genes. In total, 131 antimicrobial resistance genes were identified, while five out of eight sites had abundant multidrug resistance genes.

 The Svalbard Islands

The Svalbard Islands are in Northern Norway.

The finding is all the more unexpected as the team was seeking a virgin environment to try and establish what a background level of antimicrobial resistance in soil bacteria looks like. 

 soil bacteria

Scientists found genes important to antimicrobial resistance in soil bacteria.

‘We took 40 samples to give us an idea of what the baseline of resistance might look like in nature, but we were surprised by how different the sites were from each other,’ says lead scientist David Graham at Newcastle University. Areas with high wildlife or human impact had greatest diversity of resistance DNA in the soil.

The results show that antibiotic resistance genes are accumulating even in the most remote locations. Included in a number of samples was a multidrug resistant gene called New Dehli strain, first isolated in India.

Newcastle University find antibiotic resistant genes in Arctic. Video: Newcastle University

Some sites had levels of antimicrobial resistance 10 times greater than others, particularly those with elevated levels of phosphorus, a nutrient usually scarce in Arctic soils. 

‘There was much greater resistance diversity in sites with strong signatures of faecal matter,’ says Graham, indicating that migratory birds most likely brought the antimicrobial resistance genes, depositing them via their guano.


Materials

Researchers have developed a method to produce super-thin quantum materials with extraordinary electronic behaviour from semiconductors.

Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California, US, have designed a method in which semiconducting materials have been turned into quantum machines. 

This work could revolutionise the field, and lead to new efficient electronic systems and exciting physics.

 quantum

Quantum machines are generally made from two-dimensional (2D) materials – often graphene. These materials are one atom thick and can be stacked. When the materials form a repeating pattern, this can generate unique properties.

Studies with graphene have resulted in large advancements in the field of 2D materials. A new study has found a way to use two semiconducting materials – tungsten disulphide and tungsten diselenide – to develop a material with highly interacting electrons. 

The researchers determined that the ‘twist angle’ – the angle between the two layers – provides the key to turning a 2D system into a quantum material.

Dr Gary Harris talks about radio technology to quantum materials. Source: TEDx Talks

‘This is an amazing discovery because we didn’t think of these semiconducting materials as strongly interacting,’ said Feng Wang, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley. ‘Now this work has brought these seemingly ordinary semiconductors into the quantum materials space.’


Materials

2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog is an element which gives us life, oxygen.


Physical Properties

Oxygen is a group 5 gas that is found abundantly in nature. Of the air we breathe, 20.8% is oxygen in its elemental, diatomic form of O2. Oxygen is also one of the most abundant elements in nature, and along with carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, makes up the structures of most of the natural world. Oxygen can be found in DNA, sugar, hormones, proteins and so many more natural structures.

Although oxygen mainly exists as a colourless gas, at -183°C it can be condensed as a pale blue liquid. Oxygen may seem unsuspecting, but it is highly reactive and highly oxidising. A common example of this reactivity is how oxygen reacts with iron to produce iron oxide, which appears as rust.

Elements: Oxygen, with Dr Andrea Sella. Source: Wellcome Collection

Oxygen molecules are paramagnetic – they exhibit magnetic characteristics when in the presence of a magnetic field. Liquid oxygen is so magnetic that the effect can be seen by suspending it between the poles of a powerful magnet.

Oxygen gas has applications for medicine and space travel in breathing apparatus.


Ozone

Oxygen can be found as ozone or O3. Ozone is a pale blue gas and has a distinctive smell. It is not as stable as diatomic oxygen (dioxygen) and is formed when ultraviolet light (UV) and electrical charges interact with O2.

The highest concentration of ozone can be found in the Earth’s stratosphere, which absorbs the Sun’s UV radiation, providing natural protection for planet Earth.

 ozone layer

Ozone (O3) is most concentrated in the stratosphere. Image: Pixabay

Ozone can be used industrially as a powerful oxidising agent. Unfortunately, it can be a dangerous respiratory hazard and pollutant so much be used with care.


Water

Water consists of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Though this may seem remarkably unassuming, this combination gives water unique properties that are crucial to it’s functions in the natural world.

water stream

Originally posted by wiccangoddes

Water can form hydrogen bonds between the slightly positive hydrogen and the slightly negative oxygen. These hydrogen bonds, along with waters other practical properties, make water useful in nature.

Without the hydrogen bonding found in water, plants could not transpire – transport water through their phloem’s against gravity. The surface tension of water provides stability for many natural structures.

 lilypad

Oxygen plays a key role in nature, including in water molecules. Image: Pixabay

Oxygen plays a key role in nature, from the ozone layer that encapsulates our planet, to our DNA. It’s combination with hydrogen in water makes a molecule which is integral to the natural world, and both water and oxygen itself are pivotal to our existence the planet.


Policy

To celebrate World Poetry Day, today we look at how poetry and science interlink, and how poetry can be a unique medium for science communication.

 old book

History

Poetry and science have an interesting history – John Keats once said that Isaac Newton, one of the most prominent scientists of the time, had ‘destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism’. However, poetry can be a powerful tool to disseminate scientific research to a wider audience.

In 1984, J. W. V. Storey published his works on ‘The Detection of Shocked CO Emission’ in The Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia as a lengthy poem. He even noted on the paper that his colleagues may wish to dissociate themselves from the presentation style.

image

A note from J. M. V. Storey’s paper dissociating his colleagues from the poetry style. Source:  The Detection of Shocked CO Emission

Modern Science Poetry

Notable British poet Ruth Gabel, also the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, has written a plethora of poetry about science, including works on Darwin’s writings. She has written a multitude of poems, mainly on zoology and genetics.

In 2015, Professor Stephen Hawking, world-renowned physicist, collaborated with poet Sarah Howe to write a poem about relativity for National Poetry Day in the UK.

Stephen Hawking reads “Relativity” By Sarah Howe Film Bridget Smith. Source: National Poetry Day

Poetry can also be utilised for outreach, especially for younger audiences. The SAW Trust is a charity that uses art and poetry to engage school children in science. SAW Trust was founded by Professor Anne Osbourne, Associate Research Director and Institute Strategic Programme Leader, Plant and Microbial Metabolism at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK. The charity inspires children to find a love for science through the arts.

Science and poetry, or more generally art have always been interlinked, and by using poetry we can spread science to a wider audience.

 

Science & Innovation

For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. British scientists, engineers and inventors have played a significant role in developing engines and the automotive industry that stemmed from them.

steam train gif

Originally posted by suffocating-in-the-void

Steam power

Before the internal combustion engine, steam power was revolutionary in progressing industry in Britain. 

The first practical steam engine was designed by English inventor Thomas Newcomen in 1712 and was later adapted by Scotsman James Watt in 1765. Watt’s steam engine was the first to make use of steam at an above atmospheric pressure.

The Steam Engine - How Does It Work? Video: Real Engineering  

In 1804, the first locomotive-hauled railway journey was made by a steam locomotive design by Richard Trevithick, an inventor and mining engineer from Cornwall, UK. 

After this, steam trains took off and the steam engine was used in many ways such as powering the SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843.

 SS Great Britain
The SS Great Britain in Bristol, UK, today.

Engines at the ready

The conception and refinement of the internal combustion engine involved many inventors from around the world, including British ones. 

The automobile, using the internal combustion engine, was been invented in the United States, and Britain picked up on this emerging industry very quickly. These brands are among the most famous and abundant cars on the road today; Aston Martin, Mini, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls Royce may come to mind.  

 car engine

By the 1950s, the UK was the second-largest manufacturer of cars in the world (after the United States) and the largest exporter.

In 1930, the jet engine was patented by Sr Frank Whittle. He was an aviation engineer and pilot who started his career as an apprentice in the Royal Air Force (RAF). The jet engine became critical after the outbreak of World War II.

raf jet

Originally posted by aviationgifs

Great Britain are still major players in the aviation industry, and engineering innovations continue to be a major part of the British economy. British inventors have gone on to invent the hovercraft, hundreds of different jet designs and a variety of military vehicles.


Science & Innovation

For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. Discoveries made by British physicists have changed the way we see the world, and are still used and celebrated today.

One of the world’s most recognisable scientists is mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton (1643-1727), who is credited with the discovery of the law of gravitation.

It is scientific legend that during one afternoon in his garden in 1666, during which Newton was sat under an apple tree, that an apple fell on his head. This led to a moment of inspiration from which he based his theory of gravity.

Gravity is an invisible force that pulls objects towards each other – anything with mass is affected by gravity – and is the reason why we don’t float off into space and why objects fall when you throw or drop them.

 Isaac Newton

An illustration of Isaac Newton in 1962.

The Earth’s gravity comes from its mass, which ultimately determines your weight. As the different plants in our universe are different masses, our weight on Earth is different to what it would be on Saturn or Uranus.

Whilst Newton’s theory has since been superseded by Einstein’s theory of relativity, it remains an important breakthrough in scientific history. The apple tree that supposedly led to his theory can still be found at Newton’s childhood home, Woolsthorpe Manor, in Grantham, UK.

 Newtons apple tree

Newton’s apple tree. Image: Martin Pettitt/Flickr


The Higgs boson

As a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, physicist Peter Higgs hypothesised that when the universe began, all particles had no mass. This changed a second later when they came into contact with a theoretical field – later named the Higgs field – and each particle gained mass.

The more a particle interacts with the field, the more mass it acquires and therefore the heavier it is, he postulated. The Higgs boson is a physical manifestation of the field.

 higgs boson

A computer generated rendering of the Higgs boson.

Back in 2012, the scientific community celebrated an important discovery made by researchers at CERN using the Large Hadron Collider – the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. 

After years of theorised work, they found a particle that behaved the way that the Higgs boson supposedly behaved.

The celebration was warranted, as the discovery of the Higgs boson verified the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which states that the Higgs boson gives everything in the universe its mass. It has been estimated that it cost $13.25bn to find the Higgs boson.  

 Large Hadron Collider

Inside the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. Image: Thomas Cizauskas/Flickr

In 2013, Higgs was presented with the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with Belgian researcher Franҫois Englert, ‘for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles’.

Having avoided the limelight and media since his retirement, Higgs found out about his win from an ex-neighbour on his way home as he did not have a mobile phone!

Beyond the Higgs: What’s Next for the LHC? Video: The Royal Institution

The success of British physics isn’t slowing down either. It was in Manchester that two Russian scientists discovered graphene, which has influenced a wave of new research and investment into the use of this versatile material set to be a cornerstone for the fourth Industrial Revolution.


Science & Innovation

For British Science Week 2019, we are looking back at how Great Britain has shaped different scientific fields through its research and innovation. First, we are delving into genetics and molecular biology – from Darwin’s legacy, to the structure of DNA and now modern molecular techniques.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most famous scientific theories in biology to come from Britain. Before Charles Darwin famously published this theory, several classical philosophers considered how some traits may have occurred and survived, including works where Aristotle pondered the shape of teeth. 

These ideas were forgotten until the 18th century, when they were re-introduced by philosophers and scientists including Darwin’s own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

 colorful bird

Darwin used birds, particularly pigeons and finches to demonstrate his theories. Image: Pixabay

In 1859, Darwin first set out his theory of evolution by natural selection to explain adaptation and speciation. He was inspired by observations made on his second voyage of HM Beagle, along with the work of political economist Thomas Robert Malthus on population.

Darwin coined the term ‘natural selection’, thinking of it as like the artificial selection imposed by farmers and breeders. After publishing a series of papers with Alfred Russel Wallace, followed by On the Origin of Species, the concept of evolution was widely accepted.

 darwin gif

Although many initially contested the idea of natural selection, Darwin was ahead of his time, and further evidence was yet to come in the form of genetics.


Double Helix

Gregor Mendel first discovered genetics whilst working on peas and inheritance in the late 19th century. The unraveling of the molecular processes that were involved in this inheritance, however, allowed scientists to study inheritance and genetics in a high level of detail, ultimately advancing the field dramatically. 

A major discovery in the history of genetics was the determination of the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA).

 double helix

DNA was first isolated by Swiss scientists, and it’s general structure – four bases, a sugar and a phosphate chain – was elucidated by researchers from the United States. It was a British team that managed to make the leap to the three-dimensional (3D)structure of DNA.

Using x-ray diffraction techniques, Rosalind Franklin, a British chemist, discovered that the bases of DNA were paired. This lead to the first accurate model of DNA’s molecular structure by James Watson and Francis Crick. The work was initially published in Nature in 1953, and would later win them a Nobel Prize.

The age of genetic wonder. Source: TED

By understanding the structure of DNA, further advances in the field were made. This has lead to a wide range of innovations, from Crispr/CAS9 gene editing to targeted gene therapies. The British-born science has been utilised by British pharmaceutical companies – pharma-giants GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and AstraZeneca use this science today in driving new innovations.


Materials

2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today, on International Women’s Day, we look at the two elements radium and polonium and the part Marie Curie that played in their discovery.


Who is Marie Curie?

 Marie Sklodowska and her future husband Pierre Curie

Marie Sklodowska and her future husband Pierre Curie.

Marie Sklodowska-Curie was born in 1867 in Poland. As a young woman she had a strong preference for science and mathematics, so in 1891 she moved to Paris, France, and began her studies in physics, chemistry and mathematics at the University of Paris.

After gaining a degree in physics, Curie began working on her second degree whilst working in an industrial laboratory. As her scientific career progressed, she met her future husband, Pierre Curie, whilst looking for larger laboratory space. The two bonded over their love of science, and went on to marry, have two children and discover two elements together.

vial gif

Originally posted by savagebeastrecords

After finishing her thesis on ‘Studies in radioactivity’, Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first and only woman to win twice, and the only person to win in two different sciences.

Curie, along with husband Pierre and collaborator Henri Becquerel, won the 1903 Nobel prize in Physics for their radioactivity studies, and the 1911 Nobel prize in Chemistry for the isolation and study of elements radium and polonium.

 nobel prize

Curie won the Nobel prize twice in two different subjects. Image: Pixabay

As of 2018, Curie is one of only three women to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics and one of the five women to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.


Polonium

Polonium, like radium, is a rare and highly reactive metal with 33 isotopes, all of which are unstable. Polonium was named after Marie Curie’s home country of Poland and was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie from uranium ore in 1898.

 homer simpson radioactive gif

Polonium is not only radioactive but is highly toxic. It was the first element discovered by the Curies when they were investigating radioactivity. There are very few applications of polonium due to its toxicity, other than for educational or experimental purposes.


Radium

Radium is an alkaline earth metal which was discovered in the form of radium chloride by Marie and her husband Pierre in December 1898. They also extracted it from uranite (uranium ore), as they did with polonium. Later, in 1911, Marie Curie and André-Louis Debierne isolated the metal radium by electrolysing radium chloride.

 radiotherapy

The discovery of radium led to the development of modern cancer treatments, like radiotherapy.

Pure radium is a silvery-white metal, which has 33 known isotopes. All isotopes of radium are radioactive – some more than others. The common historical unit for radioactivity, the curie, is based on the radioactivity of Radium-226.

Famously, radium was historically used as self-luminescent paint on clock hands. Unfortunately, many of the workers that were responsible for handling the radium became ill – radium is treated by the body as calcium, where it is deposited in bones and causes damage because of its radioactivity. Safety laws were later introduced, followed by discontinuation of the use of radium paint in the 1960s.

Marie Curie: A life of sacrifice and achievement. Source: Biographics

Curie’s work was exceptional not only in its contributions to science, but in how women in science were perceived. She was an incredibly intelligent and hard-working woman who should be celebrated to this day.

 

Science & Innovation

Spaceflight is a high-risk business. Spacecraft break down all the time and when that happens funding and careers evaporate. Back in the late 1960s, NASA decided to double the odds of success and send two spacecraft on one mission. Voyagers 1 and 2, for example, were the spacecraft that returned the first detailed pictures of the outer planets of our solar system and introduced us to the neighbourhood. Launched in 1977, both are still flying.

Any spacecraft must have three components: a payload, an engine and a fuel supply – by far the heaviest component. But what if we could do away with the onboard fuel supply and replace it with an external fuel supply? Say light itself?

Can you push a spacecraft with light? Video: Physics Girl

The idea of solar sail technology has been floating around for decades. Indeed, the notion of a solar pressure can be traced back to 1610 in a letter that Johannes Kepler wrote to Galileo. 

But it was only in the 20th century that solar sails began to be considered as an achievable engineering reality. Broadly, solar sails fall into two categories: those using light from natural sources – the sun and ambient starlight in space; and those using coherent light from lasers.

 

Sustainability & Environment

Researchers at Stellenbosch University in South Africa have found a way to track pollen using quantum dots, developing a simple and cost-effective method for studying pollen distribution.

 bee and pollen

Tracking pollen can help scientists better understand pollinator behaviour.

Pollination and pollination services are key for productive farming. In fact, many farms actively manage pollination, bringing in bees or planting effective field margins.

 Fluorescent quantum dots on a bee

Fluorescent quantum dots on a bee show the distribution of the marked pollen. Image: Corneile Minnaar

Despite the importance of pollination, for many years research has been limited as there is no efficient way to study pollen distribution or track individual pollen grains.

Scientists at the university have developed an innovative method to track pollen using quantum dots.

Tracking pollen with quantum dots. Source: Stellenbosch University

Quantum dots are nanocrystals that emit bright fluorescent light when exposed to UV light. The quantum dots were equipped with lipophilic (fat-loving) ligands to allow them to stick to the fatty outer layer of pollen grains. The fluorescent colour of the quantum dots can then be used to track any pollen they have adhered to.


Health & Wellbeing

Clinical trials for a new coeliac disease vaccine are being fast tracked by the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) due to promising initial results.

gluten free bread

Coeliac disease is caused by an autoimmune response to gluten and affects approximately 1 in 100 people worldwide. Those affected must eat a gluten-free diet, or they may experience uncomfortable digestive symptoms, mouth ulcers, fatigue and anaemia.

What’s the big deal with gluten? Video: TED-Ed

Problems occur for coeliac disease patients when they are exposed to gluten – a protein found in wheat and other grains – and the immune system is triggered to attack the body. This results in inflammation, mainly in the intestines, and causes the subsequent acute symptoms related to the condition.

Over 90% of coeliac disease patients carry immune recognition genes known as HLA-DQ2.5. These genes are human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, which usually relate to specific diseases.

 injection needle

ImmusanT, a leader in the development of therapies for autoimmune disorders, has developed a vaccine that targets patients carrying the HLA-DQ2.5 genes. This novel therapeutic vaccine, known as Nexvax2, works by reprogramming specific T cells that are responsible for triggering an inflammatory response when gluten is consumed.

 


Sustainability & Environment

Scientists have discovered dozens of new microbes that could be used to limit atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and potentially clean up oil spills.

sea life

Scientists have discovered new microbes in the deep-sea which can use greenhouse gases, such as methane and butane, as energy sources. These new microbes could help reduce the concentration of these gases in our atmosphere and have the potential to be used to clean up oil spills in the future.

sea creature

Originally posted by chalkandwater

The deep-sea is one of the Earth’s most unexplored areas. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute have published findings from an extensive documentation of microbial communities living in the hot, deep-sea sediments of the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California, US. 

They found new microbes, vastly different genetically from any found before, that possess the same ability to ‘eat’ pollutant-chemicals as previously identified microbes.

 gulf of mexico oil spill

A view of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill from the International Space Station. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The scientists analysed sediment from 2000m below the surface for genomic data. At this depth, volcanic activity causes high temperatures – around 200°C – and the water contains many hydrocarbons such as methane and butane, which can be used as energy sources for bacteria.


Health & Wellbeing

The first perfumes designed by AI are slated for launch in mid-2019 in Brazil. Developed at IBM, in partnership with perfume company Symrise, the AI programme used drew upon a database of 1.7m different fragrance formulas, and used information on raw materials and the success of previously developed perfumes. It was also taught to identify which fragrances people found similar and dissimilar – getting training akin to an apprentice perfumer.

perfume

Called Philyra, after the Greek goddess of fragrance, the AI programme developed two new fragrances for Brazilian beauty company O Boticário. 

‘What she did was super innovative. She had a sweet warm background, but added cardamom-like Indian cuisine scents and a milk that came from the flavour department,’ says David Apel, Senior Perfumer with Symrise. ‘From 1.7m formulas, it is amazing for her to find something that hadn’t been done before.’

Using AI to create new fragrances. Video: IBM Research

In a demonstration at IBM Research in Zurich, Switzerland, computational researcher Richard Goodwin demonstrated how Philyra is able to scan 1,000 different formulations, and over 60 raw materials, and compare them with fragrances currently on the marketplace. It is possible to request a certain type of perfume and adjust its novelty.


Careers

Ivalina Minova is an SCI Ambassador, 2018 SCI Scholar, and a third-year PhD student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK, where her research involves the development of new techniques to help understand and improve industrially important reactions.

 Ivalina Minova with SCIs Early Careers Committee Chair

Ivalina Minova with SCI’s Early Careers Committee Chair, Alan Heaton. Image: SCI

As an SCI member, she is actively involved with the Scotland Group and has attended a number of early career events, which have helped with her career development and she has detailed in this blog.

Her last blog, about her experience working at Diamond Light Source, can be found here.

College of Scholars’ Day

SCI scholarships 

SCI award three scholarships a year. Image: SCI

Presenting at SCI’s College of Scholar’s Day on 19 November 2018 was a memorable and enjoyable experience, which introduced me to the larger network of SCI Scholars, both current and past. I was able to gain valuable insights from hearing about the progress and achievements of other Scholars.

Some of my personal highlights from the day included speaking with Dr Alex O’Malley, who has successfully launched his independent career at Cardiff University, Wales, UK, supported by a Ramsey Fellowship, which is given to early career scientists looking to build their own programme of original research.

During the event, I also volunteered to help organise a post-graduate event at the SCI AGM meeting on 3 July 2019 initiated by the SCI Early Careers Committee, which will help students like me.

You can read more about the College of Scholar’s Day here.

You’re Hired!

handshake gif

Originally posted by gacktova

This day-long event – held in Glasgow on 30 November 2018 – was aimed at PhD students and post-doctoral early career researchers. There was a diverse programme of invited speakers who gave talks on their current roles. This included an industrial research scientist from Johnson Matthey and a patent attorney.

There was an intriguing talk from a CEO and entrepreneur, Dr Paul Colborn, who founded his own university spin-out company. It was interesting to hear about the risks he took in starting his own business and the successful expansion of Liverpool ChiroChem, a chemistry-based CRO that produces chiral small molecules for biotech/pharmaceutical R&D.

I was also impressed by a talk from a senior manager from Syngenta that described how she had progressed up the career ladder after completing her PhD.

The event closed with a Q&A panel, which allowed us to ask more specific questions, followed by a wine reception and more networking opportunities. During the wine reception I approached one of the speakers from industry and was able to set up a mentoring scheme arrangement within the umbrella of the SCI mentoring scheme, which I’m sure will be a valuable experience.

Bright SCIdea: Business innovation and entrepreneurship training

 students working

Team of students with an innovate idea will compete for £5,000 in March. Image: SCI

I joined the Bright SCIdea Challenge 2019 with the motivation to learn more about business and entrepreneurial skills. The training day event on 7 December 2018 at SCI HQ provided the necessary training for writing a business plan and included talks on entrepreneurial skills, IP, finances, marketing and pitching.

I particularly enjoyed a talk on marketing given by David Prest, an experienced scientist from Drochaid Research Services, a recently established service-based company that provides research support to industry.


Health & Wellbeing

Roughly 60% of the 12 million animal experiments in Europe each year involve mice. But despite their undoubted usefulness, mice haven’t been much help in getting successful drugs into patients with brain conditions such as autism, schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. So too have researchers grown 2D human brain cells in a dish. However, human brain tissue comprises many cell types in complex 3D arrangements, necessary for true cell identity and function to emerge.

Researchers are hopeful that lab grown mini-brains – tiny 3D tissues resembling the early human brain – may offer a more promising approach. ‘We first published on them in 2013, but the number of brain organoid papers has since skyrocketed, with 300 just last year,’ says Madeline Lancaster at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology lab in Cambridge, UK.

 pippette and petri dish

Lancaster was the first to grow mini-brains – or brain organoids – as a postdoc in the lab of Juergen Knoblich at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, Austria. The miniature brains comprised parts of the cortex, hippocampus and even retinas, resembling a jumbled-up brain of a human foetus.

‘We were stunned by how similar the events in the organoids were to what happens in a human embryo,’ says Knoblich. To be clear, the brain tissue is not a downsized replicate. Lancaster compares the blobs of tissue to an aircraft disassembled and put back together, with the engine, cockpit and wings in the wrong place.

Growing mini brains to discover what makes us human | Madeline Lancaster. Video: TEDx Talks  

‘The plane wouldn’t fly, but you can study each of those components and learn about them. This is the same with brain organoids. They develop features similar to the human brain,’ she explains.


Science & Innovation

After eight months of operation in Antarctica, the EDEN ISS greenhouse has produced a ‘record harvest’ of fresh lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other herbs and vegetables to support the 10-member overwintering crew stationed at the German Neumayer Station III, the team reported in September 2018. Despite outdoor temperatures of -20°C and low levels of sunlight, the greenhouse yielded 75kg of lettuce, 51kg of cucumbers, 29kg of tomatoes, 12kg of kohlrabi, 5kg of radishes and 9kg of herbs – on a cultivation area of ca13m2.

The goal of the EDEN ISS is to demonstrate technologies that could be used by future astronauts to grow their own food on long distance missions to Mars and other more distant planets, explained NASA controlled environment technician Connor Kiselchuk, speaking at the Bayer Future of Farming Dialogue event in Monheim in September 2018. ‘Food determines how far from the Earth we can go and how long we can stay,’ he said.

How does the EDEN ISS greenhouse in Antarctica work? Video: German Aerospace Center, DLR

Even if astronauts took a year and a half’s supply of food with them on a mission to Mars, for example, he pointed out that the food would be ‘very deficient in B vitamins’ by the time they came to eat it.

Health & Wellbeing

Microscopic membranous vesicles floating outside of cells were first discovered 50 years ago; 30 years later, a subset of these was coined exosomes. At the time, these membrane bubbles were believed to be nothing more than a cellular waste disposal mechanism. But within the past decade, extracellular vesicles – and exosomes in particular – have piqued scientists’ interests, resulting in a research boom.

In 2006, there were just 115 publications referencing exosomes; by 2015, this number had mushroomed to 1010. Today, a PubMed search brings up more than 7500 publications. Consulting firm Grand View Research estimates that the global exosome market could reach $2.28bn by 2030.

 cancer cells

Advancements in exosome research could lead to breakthroughs in prostate cancer treatment. 

The interest in exosomes has been driven by the new finding that exosomes are more than just a waste disposal system – they are also a means of communication between cells and have the ability to carry cargos such as proteins and mRNA, suggesting there could be potential medical applications. 

‘Currently, research into exosomes and other extracellular vesicles is very strong,’ says Jason Webber, Prostate Cancer UK research fellow in the Division of Cancer and Genetics at Cardiff University. ‘I think this field of research will continue to grow and I believe we’ll also see greater clinical application of exosomes and a drive towards research exploring the therapeutic potential of exosomes.’

Exosomes in Cancer Research. Video: Thermo Fisher Scientific

Exosomes are best described as extracellular vescles – essentially membrane sacs – formed by the inward budding of the membrane of intracellular compartments known as multivesicular bodies (MVBs) or multivesicular endosomes (MVEs). They are released from cells when MVBs fuse with the cell’s plasma membrane, releasing its contents outside the cell. These vesicles, made of a phospholipid bilayer and ranging between 40nm and 150nm in diameter, are found in all biological fluids including blood, urine, saliva, bile, semen and breast milk.


Health & Wellbeing

Biopharmaceuticals are sourced from living organisms.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, have developed a portable drug manufacturing system that can make several different biopharmaceuticals to be used in precision medicine or to treat outbreaks in developing countries.

Biopharmaceuticals are drugs made up of proteins such as antibodies and hormones, and are produced in bioreactors using bacteria, yeast or mammalian cells. They must be purified before use, so the process has dozens of steps and it can therefore take weeks or months to produce a batch.

The Challenges in Manufacturing Biologics. Video: Amgen  

Due to the complex nature of the process and its time restrictions, biopharmaceuticals are usually produced at large factories dedicated to a single drug – often one that can treat a wide range of patients.

To help supply smaller, more specific groups of patients with drugs, a group of researchers at MIT have developed a system that can be easily configured to produce three different pharmaceuticals – human growth factor, interferon alpha 2b and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor – all of a comparable quality to commercially available counterparts.

 old man with walking stick

Biopharmaceuticals can treat autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis. Image: Pixabay

‘Traditional biomanufacturing relies on unique processes for each new molecule that is produced,’ said J Christopher Love, a Chemical Engineering Professor at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. ‘We’ve demonstrated a single hardware configuration that can produce different recombinant proteins in a fully automated, hands-free manner.’


Careers

Each year SCI’s Scotland group runs a competition where students are invited to write a short article describing how their PhD research relates to SCI’s strapline: where science meets business.

Jack Washington (right), a Pure and Applied Chemistry PhD student at the University of Strathclyde, was the overall winner of this year’s competition. His article ‘Clavulanic acid - The fight against antibiotic resistance’ is reproduced here:

Clavulanic acid - The fight against antibiotic resistance

 The molecular structure of clavulanic acid

The molecular structure of clavulanic acid. Image: Wikimedia Commons

If you were to say that cancer is the biggest threat to public health you would be wrong.

One of the most pre-eminent risks to human existence is antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are medicines used to fight bacterial infections. However, bacteria are fighting back at an alarming rate. Without effective antibiotics, we could live in a world where infections borne from a simple wound could be deadly. Routine surgeries would no longer be possible. Whilst this bacterial apocalypse seems drastic, it’s a very real possibility, and one we could face in the near future.

 Alexander Fleming

Alexander Fleming. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Antibiotics are part of a multibillion-pound industry and are essential for life as we know it today. In 1928, the scientist Alexander Fleming, from Ayrshire in Scotland, serendipitously discovered penicillin. This chance discovery revolutionised the treatment of bacterial infections and spurred a wealth of antibiotic research. 88 years later, in the nearby town of Irvine, I started my PhD project in this field.

Penicillin is a β-lactam antibiotic, which made up of molecules containing a chemical entity known as a β-lactam. This β-lactam is a covalent warhead – a harpoon that grips its bacterial victim and doesn’t let go. This harpoon interrupts bacterial cell wall formation, causing the bacteria to rupture and die. 

Maryn McKenna: What do we do when antibiotics don’t work any more? Video: TED

However, bacteria can retaliate by producing aggressive enzymes that destroy this warhead. Another member of the β-lactam family, clavulanic acid, can thwart these enzymes. Clavulanic acid has weak antibiotic activity on its own so is used in a double act with another antibiotic, amoxicillin, to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a team.

 

Materials

From monitoring our heart rate and generating renewable energy to keeping astronauts safe in space, a number of novel applications for carbon nanotubes have emerged in recent months. 

Academic and industrial interest around carbon nanotubes (CNTs) continues to  increase, owing to their exceptional strength, stiffness and electronic properties.  

Over the years, this interest has mainly focused on creating products that are both stronger and lighter, for example, in the sporting goods sector, but recently many ‘quirkier’ applications are beginning to appear.

 tennis player

Carbon nanotubes are already used in sporting goods such as tennis racquets. Image: Steven Pisano/Flickr

At Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, for example, researchers are currently working with NASA on new types of nano sensors to keep astronauts safer in space. 

The Embry-Riddle team – along with colleagues at LUNA Innovations, a fibre-optics sensing company based in  Virginia, US – have focused on developing and refining smart material sensors that can be used to detect stress or damage in critical structures using a particular class of CNT called ‘buckypaper’.

The next step in nanotechnology | George Tulevski. Video: TED

With buckypaper, layers of nanotubes can be loosely bonded to form a paper-like thin sheet, effectively creating a layer of thousands of tiny sensors. These sensor sheets could improve the safety of future space travel via NASA’s  inflatable space habitats’ – pressurised structures capable of supporting life in  outer space – by detecting potentially damaging micrometeroroids and orbital debris (MMOD). 

CNTs coated on a large flexible membrane on an inflatable habitat, for instance, could accurately monitor strain and pinpoint impact from nearby MMODs.

 

Sustainability & Environment

The concept of a hydrogen economy is not new to anyone involved or familiar with the energy sector. Until the 1970s, hydrogen was a well-established source of energy in the UK, making up 50% of gas used. For several reasons, the sector moved on, and a recent renewed interest into the advantages of hydrogen has put the gas at the forefront in the search for green energy.

Confidence behind the viability of hydrogen was confirmed last October when the government announced a £20m Hydrogen Supply programme that aims to lower the price of low carbon hydrogen to encourage its use in industry, power, buildings, and transport.

Hydrogen - the Fuel of the Future? Video: Real Engineering

‘In a way, hydrogen is more relevant than ever, because in the past hydrogen was linked with transportation,’ UCL fuel cell researcher Professor Dan Brett explained to The Engineer. ‘But now with the huge uptake of renewables and the need for grid-scale energy storage to stabilise the energy system, hydrogen can have a real role to play, and what’s interesting about that […] is that there’s a number of things you can do with it.

‘You can turn it back into electricity, you can put it into vehicles or you can do a power-to-gas arrangement where you pump it into the gas grid.’

Sustainability & Environment

The IHNV virus has spread worldwide and is fatal to salmon and rainbow trout – costing millions in sales of lost farmed fish. The current vaccination approach requires needle injection of fish, one by one. Now, however, Seattle-based Lumen Bioscience has come up with a new technology to make recombinant vaccines in a type of blue-green algae called Spirulina that costs pennies to produce and can be fed to fish in their feed.

To be effective, oral vaccines have not only to survive the gut environment intact but must also target the appropriate gut-associated immune cells. The approach developed by Lumen overcomes many of the problems with complex and expensive encapsulation strategies attempted in the past, according to CEO Brian Finrow.

fish gif

Originally posted by zandraart

‘[It] focuses on a new oral-vaccine platform [using] engineered Spirulina to express high amounts of target antigen in a form that is both provocative to the immune system – ie generates a desirable immune response that protects against future infection – and can be ingested orally without purification, in an organism that has been used as a safe food source for both humans and fish for decades.’

To produce the new oral vaccine, the Lumen researchers first developed a strain of Spirulina that manufactures recombinant proteins in its cell walls that the salmon immune system recognises as IHNV viruses. They then rapidly grew the strain in a large-scale indoor production system – requiring only light, water, salt and trace nutrients – and harvested and dried all the raw Spirulina biomass. This dried powder can then be fed to the fish.


Sustainability & Environment

In May 2018, the EU proposed a single-use plastics ban intended to protect the environment, save consumers money, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As part of the new laws, the EU aims for all plastic bottles to be recycled by 2025, and non-recyclable single-use items such as straws, cutlery, and cotton buds to be banned.

An ambitious step – and arguably necessary – but there is no denying that plastics are extremely useful, versatile and important materials, playing a role in countless applications.

The World’s Plastic Waste Could Bury Manhattan Two Miles Deep: How To Reduce Our Impact. Video: TIME

The challenge to science, industry and society is to keep developing, producing and using materials with the essential properties offered by the ubiquitous oil-based plastics of today – but improving the feedstocks and end-of-life solutions, and ensuring that consumers use and dispose of products responsibly.

A number of innovative solutions have been proposed to help plastics move towards a more sustainable future.


A sweet solution

 Deothymidine

Deothymidine is one of four nucleosides that make up the structure of DNA. Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr

‘Chemists have 100 years’ experience with using petrochemicals as a raw material, so we need to start again using renewable feedstocks like sugars as a base for synthetic but sustainable materials,’ said Dr Antoine Buchard, a Whorrod Research Fellow at the University of Bath, UK.

Dr Buchard leads a group at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies at the University of Bath that are searching for a sustainable solution for single-use plastics. Using nature as their inspiration, the team have developed a plastic derived from thymidine – the sugar found in DNA – and CO2.


Health & Wellbeing

Traditional electronics are made from rigid and brittle materials. However, a new ‘self-healing’ electronic material allows a soft robot to recover its circuits after it is punctured, torn or even slashed with a razor blade.

Made from liquid metal droplets suspended in a flexible silicone elastomer, it is softer than skin and can stretch about twice its length before springing back to its original size.

Soft Robotics & Biologically Inspired Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Video: Mouser Electronics 

‘The material around the damaged area automatically creates new conductive pathways, which bypass the damage and restore connectivity in the circuit,’ explains first author Carmel Majidi at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The rubbery material could be used for wearable computing, electronic textiles, soft field robots or inflatable extra-terrestrial housing.

‘There is a sweet spot for the size of the droplets,’ says Majidi. ‘We had to get the size not so small that they never rupture and form electronic connections, but not so big they would rupture even under light pressure.’

Careers

For over thirty years, SCI has supported and recognised the excellence of early career people, by aiding their studies in the form of an SCI Scholarship.

Since 1985 around 74 scholarships have been awarded which have not only given the recipients financial assistance, but have enabled them to broaden their network, and strengthen their skills and knowledge. SCI Scholars receive access to publishing and mentoring opportunities and are given a platform to present their work amongst esteemed scientists and industrialists, thus raising their profile within the scientific community.

In the past ten years alone, SCI has generously bequeathed over £115,000 of its charitable funds to SCI Scholars and the scientists of the future.


Emma Grant

 emma grant

Upon completing my degree I wanted to pursue a PhD which sits at the interface of two disciplines, synthetic organic chemistry and molecular biology, and the collaborative PhD programme between the University of Strathclyde and GlaxoSmithKline provided me with this opportunity. My project falls within the realm of chemical biology, a rapidly evolving discipline which has the potential to revolutionise our vision of molecular pathways and the complex mechanisms of life.

My research on the design and synthesis of photoactivatable probes to study protein-ligand interactions, aims to develop a new platform of drug discovery. I am designing a photoactivatable fragment library which has the potential to mitigate the limitations of traditional drug discovery, primarily by covering a wider chemical space with compounds of higher ligand efficiency.

Genome Editing with CRISPR-Cas9. Video: McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

This platform could provide an alternative technique to traditional screening, by broadening the chemical space available to discover novel binding ligands, and so leading to higher quality medicines.


Jona Ramadani

 Jona Ramadani

For my PhD I am studying surfactant migration on polymeric substrates. Surfactants are commonly used to modify the surface chemistry of many materials including polymers. In the manufacture of non-woven fabrics formed from polyethylene and polypropylene blends, which are used extensively in the personal care industry, non-ionic and cationic surfactants are commonly used to improve surface hydrophilicity via simple coating processes.

This surfactant loss process will be investigated by measuring key physicochemical properties of substrates treated with surfactants under different environmental conditions and as a function of time. The two primary objectives for the project are to confirm, quantify and visualise surfactant distributions on the surface of non-woven fabrics, and to develop a fundamental understanding of the surfactant loss process(es).

 surfactants

Common uses for surfactants include sanitary products and disposable nappies. Image: Shutterstock

The SCI scholarship will afford me great networking opportunities. In addition, it will help fund travel to relevant conferences such as the 8th Pacific Basin Conference on Adsorption Science and Technology to be held in September 2018 in Japan, to which I have been invited to present my work.


Ivalina Minova

 Ivalina Minova

I am investigating important zeolite-catalysed reactions including the production of fuels and emission control from diesel exhaust gases. This work is being carried out in collaboration with Prof. Russell Howe and Prof. Andy Beale along with the Catalysis Hub and beam scientists at the Diamond Light Source (B22, UK). The synchrotron at Diamond can generate a bright infrared source that allows us to obtain detailed mechanistic insight and interpret structure activity relationships for the development of improved catalytic materials.

I’m now entering the second year of my PhD and I am really enjoying it so far. I have gained a great deal of practical experience and have recently attended the 6th International Congress on Operando Spectroscopy in Spain to learn more about this subject. Earlier this year, I gave a talk at the 4th UK Catalysis Conference in Loughborough and my first scientific paper as lead author is now in preparation. 

 A diesel exhaust

A diesel exhaust. Image: Shutterstock

The funding and support offered by my SCI Scholarship will provide a valuable resource to help me extend my research to new areas of industrial importance and support my continual attendance at conferences and training courses relevant to my project work.


Sustainability & Environment

With a rapidly increasing population, the world is struggling to meet the demand for food, water, energy, and medicine. In 2011, the global population reached 7bn – approximately the amount of grains of sand you can fit it a post box, says Sir Martyn Poliakoff – and this number has since increased.

On Wednesday 25 April 2018 at his Public Evening Lecture, Sir Martyn discussed the role of photochemistry – the study of light’s effects on chemical reactions – in creating a greener and more sustainable society as essential resources deplete.

‘Chemists have to help address the sustainability challenges facing our society,’ he said. His research group at the University of Nottingham is proving that photochemistry can make an impact.

 

Fighting Malaria with Green Chemistry. Video: Periodic Videos

There are 1.3bn individuals in the world who are considered ‘profoundly’ poor. To define this Sir Martyn illustrated the profoundly poor ‘can, in their head, list everything they own’.

Today, there are more people worldwide that use mobile phones than toothbrushes. As no one wants to consume less, he asked: ‘Can we provide more for the poor without robbing the rich?’

Read the full article here....

Agrifood

On Friday 11 May 2018, 20 delegates, ranging from Master’s students to post-docs, gathered at the SCI headquarters in London for a careers day in Agri-Food. 

This was the first event organised by the newly formed SCI Agri-Food Early Careers Forum, and had six speakers presenting the perspectives of varying careers – Prof Lin Field (Rothamsted Research), Rhianna Jones (Institute of Food Technologists), Prof Tim Benton (University of Leeds), Dr Rebecca Nesbit (Nobel Media), Dr Bertrand Emond (Campden BRI), and Dr Craig Duckam (CD R&D Consultancy Service). 

Delegates were treated to a variety of talks, ranging from advice on working within research to stepping outside of the research box into science communication or private consultancy. Over the course of the day, three common skills were covered by all leaders when discussing how they achieved success in their careers.

The first of these was networking. Every talk covered aspects of this, from going to conferences and events to being a good communicator. Building connections can be the key to getting job offers, learning about new opportunities, and even knowing where best to take your career. 

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Professor Tim Benton Image: Cassie Sims

Prof Tim Benton spoke about the importance of working in teams, and of showing respect to other professionals, especially if they work in a different area. Dr Rebecca Nesbitt spoke about careers communicating science, specifically the broad range of media that can be used, and how to get involved. Rhianna Jones spoke about taking opportunities to be mentored, particularly from societies and professional organisations, such as SCI and the Institute of Food Technologists.

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Lin Field, Rothamsted Research

The second skill that was covered in depth was adaptability. Initially, Prof Lin Field spoke about this in a practical context – building a set of laboratory and general scientific skills that can be carried across disciplines. 

However, each speaker had a different perspective. For example, Dr Craig Duckham spoke of learning new skills when setting up a private consultancy, such as accounting, business, and even web design and marketing. Prof Tim Benton summarised it well, stating we need to ‘look at the big picture’, and think strategically about where our skills can be used to better the world. He stated that we “need to be willing to re-invent ourselves”. Everyone agreed that we can achieve this by diversifying our portfolio of skills and taking as many opportunities as possible.

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Lead, don’t follow

Each speaker spoke about being a leader, not a follower. This is a phrase that is used often in reference to achieving success, but is so important in every aspect of career development. Whether it is applying for a fellowship, or stepping out to start your own business, leadership skills will carry you through your career. A leader was described as someone who makes decisions, carves out a niche rather than following trends, and who sets an example that others follow naturally.

Overall, the speakers challenged delegates to consider what their idea of success is, and what skills they need to get there. The day was enjoyed by all delegates, and the advice given will help guide them throughout their future careers. The event could be summarised by this quote from Einstein, given by Prof. Benton on the day:

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Try not to become a [person] of success, but rather try to become a [person] of value.

The event is planned to run for a second year in Spring 2019.


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Materials

The eighth in its series, the Kinase 2018: towards new frontiers 8th RSC/SCI symposium on kinase design took place at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge – a world-leading biomedical science research hub.  

The focus of the event was to provide a space for the discussion of the ever-evolving kinase inhibitor landscape, including current challenges, opportunities and the road ahead.

A kinase is an enzyme that transfers phosphate groups to other proteins (phosphorylation). Typically, kinase activity is perturbed in many diseases, resulting in abnormal phosphorylation, thus driving disease. Kinases inhibitors are a class of drug that act to inhibit aberrant kinases activity.

Cell signalling: kinases & phosphorylation. Image: Phospho Biomedical Animation

Over 100 delegates from across the world working in both academia and industry attended the event, including delegates from GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Genentech, and Eli Lilly and Co.

The event boasted world-class speakers working on groundbreaking therapeutics involving kinase inhibitors, including designing drugs for the treatment of triple negative breast cancer, complications associated with diabetes, African sleeping sickness and more.


How can kinase inhibitors revolutionise cancer treatment?

 Tsetse flies

Tsetse flies carry African sleeping sickness. Image: Oregon State University/Flickr

The keynote speaker, Prof Klaus Okkenhaug from Cambridge University, spoke about how the immune system can be manipulated to target and kill cancer cells by using kinase inhibitors.

Klaus is working on trying to better understand the effects of specific kinase inhibitors on the immune system in patients with blood cancer.

He also explored how his work can benefit those with APDS, a rare immunodeficiency disorder, which he helped to elucidate on a molecular level.


Solving graft rejection, one kinase at a time

 Organ grafts

Organ grafts are a surgical procedure where tissue is moved from one site in the body to another. Image: US Navy

Improving tolerance to organ grafts is at the forefront of transplantation medicine. James Reuberson from UCB Pharma UK, highlighted how kinase inhibitors can be utilised to improve graft tolerance.  

James took the delegates on a journey, describing the plight of drug discovery and development, highlighting the challenges involved in creating a drug with high efficacy. While still in its infancy, James’ drug shows potential to prolong graft retention.


Health & Wellbeing

An innovative new screening method using cell aggregates shaped like spheres may lead to the discovery of smarter cancer drugs, a team from the Scripps Research Institute, California, US, has reported.  

The 3D aggregates, called spheroids, can be used to obtain data from potentially thousands of compounds using high throughput screening (HTS). HTS can quickly identify active compounds and genes in a specific biomolecular pathway using robotics and data processing.

 A spheroid under a confocal microscope

A spheroid under a confocal microscope. Image: Kota et al./The Scripps Research Institute  

The spheroids – 100 to 600 microns thick in diameter – spread in a similar way to cancer cells in the body and are therefore more effective in identifying potential cancer drugs, the team hypothesises.

For this study, the team focused on KRAS – a gene belonging to the RAS family. It is estimated these genes account for one-third of all cancers.

 Robots handle assays in a HTS system

Robots handle assays in a HTS system. Image: NIH/Flickr

DOI: 10.1038/s41388-018-0257-5


Sustainability & Environment

Water scarcity is a truly global problem, affecting each continent and a total of 2.8bn people across the world. By 2025, 15% of the global population will not have access to sufficient water resources.

Water usage is expected to grow by 40% in the coming 20 years as demand grows from industry and agriculture, driven by accelerating population growth and increased urbanisation.

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Originally posted by skunkandburningtires

Insufficient water supply affects the health of children disproportionally, as a decrease in food and nutrient intake can lead to problems with growth and an individual’s immune system.

A shortage of water can lead to communities relying on poorly sanitised water, allowing infections that can cause diarrhoea and intestinal parasites. Both can be deadly in areas without access to quality healthcare.

 A family in Somalia collects their daily water allowance

A family in Somalia collects their daily water allowance. Image: Oxfam International/Flickr

But it is not only a scarcity of clean drinking water that presents a global health challenge – the agriculture industry relies on an increasing supply of fresh water for food production. It is estimated that the number of crops such as wheat, rice, and maize will decrease by 43% by the end of the 21st century.

Agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s water use, and is constantly competing with domestic and industrial uses for an already dwindling water supply. The World Wide Fund for Nature claims that many countries, such as the US, China, and India, have already reached their renewable water resource limits.

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Agriculture is responsible for 70% of the world’s water usage. 

The most popular current desalination methods – the process by which salt and minerals are removed from water – are thermal and membrane desalination. Both are energy-intensive and often not cost-efficient for developing countries, which are the most likely to struggle with poor water sanitation and shortages.

As a result, both the healthcare and agricultural industries are desperately searching for a solution.


Graphene membrane

 A grapheneoxide membrane

A graphene-oxide membrane is at the forefront of new water filtration techniques. Image: University of Manchester

In Manchester, UK, the development of graphene – a material comprised of a single-layer of carbon in a honeycomb structure – is revolutionising modern membrane desalination and water filtration techniques.

An ultra-thin graphene-oxide membrane developed at the University of Manchester is not only able to separate water and salt – proving to be completely impermeable to all solvents but water – but other compounds as well.

 

A reverse osmosis desalination plant. Image: James Grellier/Wikimedia Commons

The technology – called organic solvent nanofiltration – separates organic compounds by charge and can differentiate solvents by the nanometre. The group tested the membranes using alcohol, such as whisky and cognac, and various dyes with successful results.

‘The developed membranes are not only useful for filtering alcohol, but the precise sieve size and high flux open new opportunities to separate molecules from different organic solvents for chemical and pharmaceutical industries,’ said Rahul Nair, team leader at the National Graphene Institute and Professor of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at the University of Manchester.

‘This development is particularly important because most of the existing polymer-based membranes are unstable in organic solvents, whereas the developed graphene-oxide membrane is highly stable.’

Graphene: Membranes and their practical applications. Video: The University of Manchester - The home of graphene

The graphene-oxide membrane is made up of sheets that are stacked in a way that creates pinholes connected by graphene nanochannels. The structure forms an atomic-scale sieve allowing the flow of solvents through the membrane.

Not only is the technology able to filter smaller molecules than existing filtration techniques – it also improves filtration efficiency by increasing the solvent flow rate.

‘Chemical separation is all about energy, with various chemical separation processes consuming about half of industrial energy usage,’ said Prof Nair. ‘Any new efficient separation process will minimise the consumption of energy, which is in high demand now.’



Sustainability & Environment

Transparent solar cells that can convert invisible light wavelengths into renewable energy could supply 40% of the US’ energy demand, a Michigan State University (MSU) engineering team have reported.

In contrast to the robust, opaque solar panels that take up a large amount of space – whether on rooftops or on designated solar farms – the transparent solar cells can be placed on existing surfaces, such as windows, buildings, phones, and any other object with a clear surface.

 Traditional solar panels

Traditional solar panels require large amounts of space. 

‘Highly transparent solar cells represent the wave of the future for new solar cell applications,’ says Richard Lunt, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at MSU.

‘We analysed their potential and show that by harvesting only invisible light, these devices can provide a similar electricity generation potential as rooftop solar while providing additional functionality to enhance the efficiency of buildings, automobiles, and mobile electronics.’

 the sun

Solar, or photovoltaic, cells convert the sun’s energy into electricity. Image: Pixabay

Currently, the cells are running at 5% efficiency, says the team, compared to traditional solar panels that have recorded efficiencies between 15-18%. Lunt believes that with further research, the capability of the transparent cells could increase three-fold.

‘That is what we are working towards,’ says Lunt. ‘Traditional solar applications have been actively researched for over five decades, yet we have only been working on these highly transparent solar cells for about five years.’

 apple iphone

The cells can be added to any existing transparent surface, including mobile phones. Image: Max Pixel

While solar panels may be more efficient at converting energy than the group’s transparent cells, Lunt says that the latter can be easily applied to more surfaces and therefore a larger surface area, increasing the overall amount of energy produced by the cells.

‘Ultimately,’ he says, ‘this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible.’

Transparent solar cells. Video: Michigan State University

Together, and with further work on its efficiency, the authors of the paper believe that their see-through cells and traditional solar panels could fulfil the US’ energy needs.

‘The complimentary deployment of both technologies could get us close to 100% of our demand if we also improve energy storage,’ Lunt says.


Health & Wellbeing

Around 700,000 people worldwide die every year from bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. In the UK alone, that figure is at least 12,000 – more deaths than from breast cancer. And those numbers look set to rise even higher.

‘It’s not just the fact that resistance is increasing – that’s inevitable,’ says Nick Brown, Director of advocacy group, Antibiotic Action. ‘The issue is more the rate of increase in resistance, which appears to be accelerating.’

The Infectious Diseases Society of America recently reported resistance to drugs within six months of antibiotics coming onto the market, and in some cases, even before the drug goes on the market. Many bacterial strains are increasingly displaying resistance to combinations of commonly used and last-resort antibiotics.

 antibiotics

Of 33 antibiotics in development targeting priority pathogens, just nine belong to five new antibiotic classes. Image: Public Domain Pictures

‘The end of the antibiotic era isn’t on the horizon just yet,’ Brown says. ‘But we can see it wouldn’t take much to get that way.’

Failure to tackle antibiotic-resistant superbugs could result in 10m deaths a year by 2050, according to the UK government-commissioned Review on Antimicrobial Resistance. The UN and G20 have both made political commitments to combat the problem. Nevertheless, time is running out.

‘This is an urgent and rapidly rising global health problem,’ says Ghada Zoubiane, science lead for the Wellcome Trusts’ drug-resistant infections team. ‘We need greater investment in developing new ways to treat and protect people from these deadly infections and we need better understanding of how resistance spreads.’

 

What causes antibiotic resistance? Video: TED-Ed

Despite calls for increased R&D, no new classes of antibiotics have been approved since the early 1980s, apart from the approval of linezolid in 2000, and the last new class to treat Gram-negative bacteria was discovered in 1962, Zoubiane says.

Big pharma withdrew en masse from the antibiotic space in the 1990s, due to the low returns on the high level of investment required in antibiotic R&D. Recognising the urgency of the problem, however, in January 2016 more than 90 pharma and biotech companies committed to enhancing antibiotic discovery.

The move has been accompanied by more research into understanding resistance mechanisms, as well as a shift to more outside-of-the-box thinking about alternative treatments.

 microscope

In 2016, over $500m was invested into research into antibiotic resistance. Image: PxHere

In February 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its list of 12 antibiotic-resistant ‘priority pathogens’ that pose the greatest threat to human health. Most notable are the Gram-negative bacteria, which possess an additional outer cell membrane and are harder to treat with antibiotics than Gram-positive bacteria.

‘These bacteria have been assessed as the most critical priority for antibiotic R&D, as strains are emerging worldwide that cannot be treated with any of the antibiotics currently on the market,’ WHO says.

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Originally posted by amnhnyc

Despite the increased commitment to R&D, however, a WHO report in September 2017 lamented the ‘serious lack of new antibiotics under development’. Among the 33 new chemical entity antibiotics in development targeting priority pathogens, just nine belong to five new antibiotic classes.

There are 16 products, both antibiotics and biologics, with activity against one or more Gram-positive priority pathogens – although mostly targeting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – including two new antibiotic classes.

Meanwhile, ‘the situation is worse for Gram-negative bacterial infections’, says WHO. Of ten products in Phase 1 trials, ‘almost all the agents are modifications of existing antibiotic classes […] active only against specific pathogens or a limited subset of resistant strains’.

The 2016 Lister Memorial Lecture: Dame Sally Davies on Global antiiotic resistance. Video: SCI

WHO warns that ‘more investment is needed in basic science, drug discovery and clinical development, especially for the critical priority Gram-negative carbapenem-resistant pathogens P. aeruginosaA. baumannii, and Enterobacteriaceae.’

‘We need to find a strategy not to overcome resistance, but to be able to live with and manage it,’ Brown reflects. ‘I’m more optimistic than some. It’s important to remember that before antibiotics were discovered, the human race didn’t die out.’


Antimicrobial drug discovery

 bacteria pertri dish

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Science & Innovation

 Concorde

The Concorde was the first commercial supersonic aircraft to have been built. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, a chance encounter under the wings of Concorde at Duxford Air Museum, Cambridge, with Trinity College Dublin Professor Johnny Coleman, would set in motion a series of events that would lead, six years later, to the development of a 20t/year graphene manufacturing plant.

As soon as we got talking, I was impressed by Johnny’s practical, non-nonsense approach to solving the scalability issue with graphene production.

Coleman is a physicist, not a chemist, and believed that the solution lay in mechanical techniques. Following the conference, Thomas Swan agreed to fund his group for four years to develop a scalable process for the manufacture of graphene.

 graphene

Just a nanometer thick, graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms joined in a hexagonal lattice. Image: Pixabay

Coleman and his team initially considered sonication – when sound waves are applied to a sample to agitate its particles – but quickly ruled it out due to its lack of scalability. He then sent one of his researchers out to the shops to buy a kitchen blender. They threw together some graphite, water, and a squirt of washing-up liquid into the blender, switched it on, and went for a cup of coffee.

When they later analysed the ‘grey soup’ they had created, they found they had successfully made few-layer graphene platelets. The group then spent months optimising the technique and worked closely with Thomas Swan scientists to transfer the process back to Thomas Swan’s manufacturing HQ in Consett, Ireland.

spongebob gif

Originally posted by spongebob-squarepants-is-my-hero

Graphene is 300 times stronger than steel.

The plant can make up to 20t/year of high quality graphene. It uses a high sheer continuous process to exfoliate graphite flakes into few-layer graphene platelets in an aqueous dispersion.

The dispersion is stabilised by adding various surfactants before separating out the graphene using continuous cross-flow filtration devices developed with the support of the UK’s Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – a government initiative focused on fostering innovation and economic growth in specific research areas.

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Using sticky tape, scientists pulled off graphene sheets from a block of graphite. Image: Pixabay

This de-risking of process development using a Catapult is a classic example of effective government intervention to support innovative SMEs. CPI not only showed us it worked, but also optimised the technique for us.

The company quickly realised that selling graphene in a powder form with no application data was not going to work. Instead, we developed a range of performance data to assist the sales team by highlighting what graphene can do if adopted into a range of applications.

 

The potential of graphene can be commercialised using composites. Video: The University of Manchester – The home of graphene

We also moved to make the product available in ‘industry friendly’ forms such as epoxy resin dispersions or polymer masterbatches. This move, slightly downstream from the raw material, has recently led to Thomas Swan announcing its intention to expand its range of formulated graphene materials, with a prototype product focusing on the manufacture of a carbon fibre composite.

Our application data shows that graphene has significant benefits as an industrial additive. Presenting this data to composite-using downstream customers is starting to open doors and create supply chain partnerships to get a raw material all the way to a fully integrated application.

 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics

Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of graphene. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The move downstream, to develop useable forms of graphene, is common in the industry, with most graphene suppliers now making their products available as an ink, dispersion or masterbatch. Thomas Swan’s experience with single-wall carbon nanotubes has made us aware of the need to take more control of graphene application development to ensure rapid market adoption.

Graphene applications drawing most interest include composites, conductive inks, battery materials, and resistive heating panels, although much of this demand is to satisfy commercial R&D rather than full commercial production.

Graphene science | Mikael Fogelström | TEDxGöteborg. Video: TEDx Talks

Thanks to innovations like our continuous high sheer manufacturing process, Thomas Swan believes that graphene is about to become very easy to make. Before it can be considered a commodity, however, it will also need to deliver real value in downstream applications. Therefore, the company is also increasing its efforts to understand market driven demand and application development.

As the initial hype over the ‘wonder’ material graphene starts to wane, progress is being made to develop scalable manufacturing techniques and to ensure graphene delivers some much-promised benefits to downstream applications.

Energy

Renewable energy has long been known as a greener alternative to fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean that the former has no negative environmental impacts. Hydropower, for instance, has been known to reduce biodiversity in the land used for its systems.

Now, a team of Norwegian-based researchers have developed a methodology that quantifies the environmental effects of hydropower electricity production.

UllaFrre

Ulla-Førre – Norway’s largest hydropower station.

Martin Dorber, PhD candidate in Industrial Ecology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), is part of the team that developed the analytic tool. ‘Some hydropower reservoirs may look natural at first. However, they are human-influenced and if land has been flooded for their creation, this may impact terrestrial ecosystems,’ he said,

The Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, can be used by industry and policymakers to identify the trade-offs associated with current and future hydropower projects. Norway is one of the top hydropower producers in the world, with 95% of its domestic electricity production coming from hydropower.

 Hoover Dam station

Generations inside the Hoover Dam station. Image: Richard Martin/Flickr

Many hydropower facilities include a dam –  many purpose-built for hydropower generation – which stores fresh water from lakes or rivers in a reservoir.

Reducing biodiversity in the areas where hydropower development is being considered is one of the main disadvantages of the renewable source. Reduced freshwater habitats and water quality, and land flooding are among the damaging effects – all of which are difficult to assess, says the team.

‘Land use and land use change is a key issue, as it is one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss, because it leads to loss and degradation of habitat for many species,’ said Dorber.

 Hydropower development

Hydropower development can be damaging to freshwater habitats. Image: Pexels

Using reservoir surface area data from the Norwegian Water Resources and Water Resources Directorate and satellite images from the NASA-USGS Global Land Survey, the team were able to create a life cycle inventory that showed the amount of land needed to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity.

‘By dividing the inundated land area with the annual electricity production of each hydropower reservoir, we calculated site-specific net land occupation values for the life cycle inventory,’ said Dorber.

‘While it’s beyond the scope of this work, our approach is a crucial step towards quantifying impacts of hydropower electricity production on biodiversity for life cycle analysis.’

While this study is exclusive to hydropower reservoirs in Norway, the team believe this analysis could be adopted by other nations looking to extend their hydropower development and assess the potential consequences.

Pumped-storage hydropower. Video: Statkraft

‘We have shown that remote sensing data can be used to quantify the land use change caused by hydropower reservoirs,’ said Dorber. ‘At the same time our results show that the land use change differs between hydropower reservoirs.’

‘More reservoir-specific land use change assessment is a key component that is needed to quantify the potential environmental impacts.’

Health & Wellbeing

Combatting malnutrition in all its forms – overweight and obesity as well as undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – is a global problem.

The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) recently published a report calling for urgent action on food and nutrition security: this action will need to include consideration of the options for changing European diets to mitigate climate change, conferring co-benefits for health.

 EUs population is overweight

The European Commission estimates 51.6% of the EU’s population is overweight. Image: Tony Alter/Flickr

EASAC brings together EU member states’ national science academies with the aim of offering evidence-based advice to European policy makers. EASAC provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard and its recent report is part of a global project led by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP).

The analysis and recommendations for Europe are accompanied by parallel activities focusing on Africa, Asia and the Americas. The IAP report will be published later in 2018.

 EASAC

EASAC recommendations will incorporate global challenges and needs, not just those in Europe. Image: Pixabay

In the EASAC report we emphasise that research and innovation are central to finding solutions. We recommend being more ambitious in identifying and using scientific opportunities: How can the current evidence base shape understanding of both supply- and demand-side challenges? And how should the research agenda be defined, including basic research, to fill knowledge gaps?

Climate change will have negative impacts on food systems, necessitating the introduction of climate-smart agriculture such as the adoption of plant breeding innovations to cope with drought.

Climate-Smart Agriculture in Action. Video: Farming First 

Agriculture and current diets also contribute significantly to climate change. Mitigating this contribution depends on land-sparing and agronomic management practices together with efforts to influence consumer behaviours associated with excessive greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, including the over-consumption of calories and meat.

Among the core findings in our report is that food consumption will need to change to improve consumer health. It is important to explore individual responsiveness to nutrition and the links to health, and to consider the particular needs of vulnerable groups.

 High meat production

High meat production has been linked to increasing carbon emissions. Image: Pixabay

As part of the changes to food consumption patterns, a decrease in the consumption of animal protein could be important for both health and the environment but, globally, more research is needed to clarify these relationships and to measure sustainability related to consumption of healthy diets. We also call for policy makers to introduce incentives for affordable nutrition.

Agriculture has significant impacts on the environment. We call for the revamp of the Common Agricultural Policy to focus on innovation rather than subsidies, in order to play a key role in European competitiveness and the bioeconomy.

wheat gif

Originally posted by sunbursts-and-marblehalls

Alternatives to traditional forms of animal protein include food from the oceans, laboratory-grown meat and insects. Research is needed to understand and inform consumer attitudes to innovative food and diets.

Also, research objectives for the next generation of biofuels should include examining the potential of cellulosic raw materials. Further ahead, energy research must continue to explore how to engineer systems with improved photosynthesis.

 Biofuels

Biofuels are derived from common crops, including wheat, corn and sugar. Image: Public Domain Pictures

Europe should not stall on opportunities for innovation coming within range. Breakthroughs in genome editing and other genetic research are crucial to the future of agriculture. European policy makers must capitalise on these scientific advances.

For improved plant and animal breeding, it is important to protect and characterise wild gene pools and to continue sequencing and functional assessment to unveil the potential of genetic resources. Precision agriculture offers many opportunities to improve productivity with reduced environmental impact. Large data sets are vital to support innovation and prepare for risk and uncertainty.

 

Open-source automated precision farming | Rory Aronson | TEDxUCLA. Video: TEDx Talks

Underpinning all our recommendations is the recognition that research and innovation must be better integrated, across disciplines and the public and private sectors, in order to better understand the interfaces between health, nutrition, food and other ecosystem services.

EASAC emphasises that efforts to increase food systems’ efficiency should not focus on increasing agricultural productivity by ignoring environmental costs.

Sustainability & Environment

Images of turtles trapped in plastic packaging or a fish nibbling on microfibres pull on the heartstrings, yet many scientists studying plastics in the oceans remain open-minded on the long-term effects.

While plastics shouldn’t be in our oceans, they say there is still insufficient evidence to determine whether microplastics – the very tiniest plastic particles, usually defined as being less than 1mm in diameter – are actually harmful.

 turtles

It is estimated that over 1,000 turtles die each year from plastic waste. Image: NOAA Marine Debris Program

On top of this, there is debate over how much plastic is actually in the sea and why so much of it remains hidden from view. Much of the research carried out to date is in its early stages – and has so far produced no definitive answers.

‘My concern is that we have to provide the authorities with good data, so they can make good decisions,’ says Torkel Gissel Nielsen, Technical University of Denmark (DTU). ‘We need strong data – not just emotions.’


Searching the sea

 Plastic shopping bags

Plastic shopping bags can be degraded into microplastics that litter the oceans. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gissel Nielsen leads a team of researchers who discovered that levels of microplastics in the Baltic Sea have remained constant over the past three decades, despite rising levels of plastics production and use.

The study – by researchers at DTU Aqua, the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Geomar, Germany – analysed levels of microplastics in fish and water samples from the Baltic Sea, taken between 1987 and 2015.

‘The result is surprising,’ says Nielsen. ‘There is the same amount of plastic in both the water and the fish when you go back 30 years.’ He claims that previous studies of microplastics levels were ‘snapshots’, while this is the first time levels have been studied over a longer period.

 microbeads

The UK introduced a ban in January this year of the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads. Image: MPCA Photos 

‘The study raises a number of questions, such as where the plastic has gone,’ he says. ‘Does it sink to the bottom, are there organisms that break it down, or is it carried away by currents? Some is in the sediment, some is in the fish, but we need to find out exactly how much plastic is there.’

In the study, more than 800 historical samples of fish were dissected and researchers found microplastics in around 20% of them. This laborious process involved diluting the stomach contents in order to remove ‘organic’ materials, then checking the filtered contents under a microscope to determine the size and concentration of plastics. It illustrates the difficulty of quantifying plastics in any sample, says Gissel Nielsen.

‘You must remove the biology to get a clear view of the plastics,’ he says.


River transport

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Originally posted by flyngdream

Just as rivers supply the sea with water, they also act as a source of pollution. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Germany, found that 10 large rivers are responsible for transporting 90% of plastic waste into the sea.

The team collected pre-published data on plastics in rivers and collated it with upstream sites of ‘mismanaged’ plastics waste – municipal waste that is uncollected.

‘The more mismanaged plastic waste there was, the more you found in the river,’ says Christian Schmidt, UFZ. ‘There was an empirical relationship between the two.’

 The Yangtze river

The Yangtze river (pictured in Shanghai, China) is the main polluter of plastic in the ocean in the world. Image: Pedro Szekely/Flickr

Eight of these 10 rivers are in Asia, while the other two are in Africa. All of them flow through areas of high population.

‘Countries like India and China have seen huge economic growth – and now use large amounts of plastic food packaging and bottles – but have limited waste collection systems,’ he says. The data include both microplastic and ‘macro’ plastics – but microplastics data dominate ‘because scientists are more interested in that’, says Schmidt.

Plastic Ocean. Video: United Nations

While it is important to measure how much plastic is in the environment, Schmidt believes that the next step of his research will be more important – understanding the journey the plastics make from the river to the sea.

For all the uncertainty and debate over how much plastic is in the sea – and what harm it can do – one thing is clear. Future research is likely to focus more on the plastics that we can’t see, rather than the items we can.

 

Health & Wellbeing

Tweaking the chemical structure of the antibiotic vancomycin may offer a new route to tackle the burgeoning problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, researchers in Australia have discovered.

Vancomycin has been used since the late 1950s to treat life-threatening infections caused by Gram-positive bacteria, including methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). The antibiotic works by binding to a precursor of the cell wall component, peptidoglycan, Lipid II, thus inhibiting bacterial growth.

Lipid II is present in both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. However, in Gram-negative bacteria it is protected by an outer membrane. In Gram-positive bacteria, Lipid II is embedded in the cell membrane but part of the molecule – a pentapeptide component – sticks out, which is what vancomycin binds to.

The researchers at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Biology (IMB), led by director of superbug solutions Matt Cooper, reasoned that if they could increase the ability of vancomycin to bind to the bacterial membrane, this would make it more difficult for bacteria to develop resistance to it.

‘Our strategy was to add components to vancomycin so that the new derivatives – which we call “vancapticins” – could target more widely the membrane surface,’ explains Mark Blaskovich, senior research chemist at IMB. ‘By providing two binding sites – the membrane surface and the membrane-embedded Lipid II - this allows binding to resistant strains in which the Lipid II has mutated to reduce interactions with vancomycin.’ 

In addition, the researchers say that the vancapticins have been designed to take advantage of compositional differences between mammalian and bacteria cell membranes – ie bacterial cells have a greater negative charge. The vancapticins have greater selectivity for bacterial cells over mammalian cells, potentially reducing off-target effects and giving a better safety profile. A series of structure–activity studies showed that some of the vancapticins were more than 100 times more active than vancomycin.

 MRSA

Hospital-Associated Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Bacteria. Image: NIAID

This membrane-targeting strategy, the researchers say, has the potential to ‘revitalise’ antibiotics that have lost their effectiveness against recalcitrant bacteria as well as enhance the activity of other intravenous-administered drugs that target membrane associated receptors.

John Mann, emeritus professor of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, UK, comments: ‘Bacteria have developed numerous strategies to modify the binding, uptake and expulsion of antibiotics, and thus develop resistance. So, it is especially exciting to see the development of these new vancomycin derivatives that enhance the membrane binding properties of the antibiotic, thus enhancing its efficacy and beating the bacteria at their own game.’

Sustainability & Environment

It’s well known that the oceans are becoming more acidic as they absorb increasing amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Now, German researchers say they have found the first evidence that this is happening in freshwaters, too, with potentially widespread effects on ecosystems.

‘Many current investigations describe tremendous effects of rising CO2 levels on marine ecosystems,’ says Linda Weiss at Ruhr-University Bochum: acidic oceans can have major impacts on marine food webs, nutrient cycles, overall productivity and biodiversity. ‘However, freshwater ecosystems have been largely overlooked,’ she adds.

image

Originally posted by boitoyscotty

Waters with high acidity have reduced biodiversity.

Weiss and colleagues looked at four freshwater reservoirs in Germany. Their analysis of data over 35 years – from 1981 to 2015 – confirmed a continuous increase in CO2, measured as the partial pressure or pCO2, and an associated decrease in pH of about 0.3, suggesting that freshwaters may acidify at a faster rate than the oceans.

In lab studies, the team also investigated the effects of higher acidity on two species of freshwater crustaceans called Daphnia, or water fleas. Daphnia found in lakes, ponds and reservoirs are an important primary food source for many larger animals.

 Daphnia

Daphnia are an essential part of the freshwater food chain. Image: Faculty of Natural Sciences at Norwegian University of Science and Technology/Flickr  

When Daphnia sense that predators are around, they respond by producing ‘helmets’ and spikes that make them harder to eat. Weiss found that high levels of CO2 reduce Daphnia’s ability to detect predators. ‘This reduces the expression of morphological defences, rendering them more vulnerable,’ she says.

The team suggest that CO2 alters chemical communication between species, which could have knock-on effects throughout the whole ecosystem. Many fish learn to use chemical cues from injured species to detect predatory threats and move away from danger, for example.

Ocean acidification - the evil twin of climate change | Triona McGrath | TEDxFulbrightDublin. Video: TEDx Talks

Cory Suski, an ecologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US, says he is not aware of many other data sets showing trends in CO2 abundance in freshwater over an extended time. Also, he notes: ‘A lot of the work to date in this area has revolved around behavioural or physiological responses to elevated CO2, so a morphological change is novel.’

But he points out that it is difficult to predict how this change could impact aquatic ecosystems, or whether this may be a global phenomenon, simply because of the complex nature of CO2 in freshwater. The amount of CO2 in freshwater is driven by a number of factors including geology, land use, water chemistry, precipitation patterns and aquatic respiration.

Materials

With an ever-increasing demand for data storage, the race is on to develop new materials that offer greater storage density. Researchers have identified a host of exotic materials that use new ways to pack ‘1’s and ‘0’s into ever-smaller spaces.

And, while many of them are still lab curiosities, they offer the potential to improve data storage density by 100 times or more.


Having a moment

 floppy disks

Data storage technology has moved quickly away from floppy disks (pictured) and CD-DOMs. Image: Pexels

The principle behind many storage media is to use magnetic ‘read’ and ‘write’ heads, an idea also exploited by many of these new technologies – albeit on a much smaller scale.

A good example is recent work from Manchester University, UK, where researchers have raised the temperature at which ‘single molecule magnets’ can be magnetised. Single-molecule magnets could have 100 times the data storage density of existing memory devices.

In theory, any molecular entity can be used to store data as reversing its polarity can switch it from a ‘1’ to a ‘0’. In this case, instead of reading and writing areas of a magnetic disk, the researchers have created single molecules that exhibit magnetic ‘hysteresis’ – a prerequisite for data storage.

 

Researchers discuss the circuit boards in development that negotiate Moore’s Law. Video: Chemistry at The University of Manchester

‘You need a molecule that has its magnetic moment in two directions,’ says Nick Chilton, Ramsay Memorial research fellow in the school of chemistry. ‘To realise this in a single molecule, you need very specific conditions.’

In addition to having a strong magnetic moment, the molecule needs a slow relaxation time – that is, the time it takes for the molecule to ‘flip’ naturally from a ‘1’ to a ‘0’.  ‘If this time is effectively indefinite, it would be useful for data storage,’ he says.

The key is that the molecule itself must have a magnetic moment. So, while a bulk substance such as iron oxide is ‘magnetic’, individual iron oxide particles are not.

 binary digit

A binary digit, or bit, is the smallest unit of data in computing. The system is used in nearly all modern computers and technology. Image: Pixabay

Chilton and his colleagues have identified and synthesised a single-molecule magnet – a dysprosium atom, sandwiched between two cyclopentadienyl rings – that can be magnetised at 60K. This is 46K higher than any previous single-molecule magnet – and only 17K below the temperature of liquid nitrogen.

Being able to work with liquid nitrogen – rather than liquid helium – would bring the cost of a storage device down dramatically, says Chilton. To do this, the researchers must now model and make new structures that will work at 77K or higher.


Bit player

Skyrmions may sound like a new adversary for Doctor Who, but they are actually another swirl-like magnetic entity that could be used to represent a bit of digital data.

doctor who gif

Originally posted by doctorwho247

Scientists at the Max Born Institute (MBI), Germany – in collaboration with colleagues from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US – have devised a way to generate skyrmions in a controllable way, by building a ‘racetrack’ nanowire memory device that might in future be incorporated into a conventional memory chip.

‘Skyrmions can be conceived as particles – because that’s how they act,’ says Bastian Pfau, a postdoctoral researcher at MBI, as they are generated using a current pulse.

‘Earlier research put a lot of current pulses through a racetrack and created a skyrmion randomly,’ he says. ‘We’ve created them in a controlled and integrated way: they’re created on the racetrack exactly where you want them.’

 Max Born Institute

This racetrack memory device could be incorporated into standard memory chips, say researchers at the Max Born Institute. Credit: Grafix 

In fact, skyrmions can be both created and moved using current pulses – but the pulse for creating them is slightly stronger than the one that moves them. The advantage of using a current pulse is that it requires no moving parts.

The resulting racetrack is a three-layer nanowire about 20nm thick – a structure that will hold around 100 skyrmions along a one-micron length of wire.

While the current research is done ‘in the plane’ with the nanowires held horizontally, Pfau says that in the future, wires could be stacked vertically in an array to boost storage capacity. ‘This would increase the storage density by 100. But this is in the future and nobody has made a strip line that’s vertical yet.’

Could magnetic skyrmions hold the answer to better data storage? Video: Durham University

‘The whole function depends on how you create the multi-layer,’ he says. To stand any chance of being commercialised, which might take six or eight years, Pfau says that new materials will be needed.

However, he is confident this will happen – and that the technology can be merged with ‘conventional’ electronic devices.

Health & Wellbeing

A new type of wheat, chock full of healthy fibre, has been launched by an international team of plant geneticists. The first crop of this super wheat was recently harvested on farms in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington state in the US, ready for testing by various food companies.

Food products are expected to hit the US market in 2019. They will be marketed for their high content of ‘resistant starch’, known to improve digestive health, be protective against the genetic damage that precedes bowel cancer, and help protect against Type 2 diabetes. 

How do carbohydrates impact your health? Video: TED-Ed

‘The wheat plant and the grain look like any other wheat. The main difference is the grain composition: the GM Arista wheat contains more than ten times the level of resistant starch and three to four times the level of total dietary fibre, so it is much better for your health, compared with regular wheat,’ says Ahmed Regina, plant scientist at Australian science agency CSIRO.  

Starch is made up of two types of polymers of glucose – amylopectin and amylose. Amylopectin, the main starch type in cereals, is easily digested because it has a highly branched chemical structure, whereas amylose has a mainly linear structure and is more resistant. 

 Bread2

Bread and potatoes are foods also high in starch. Image: Pixabay

Breeders drastically reduced easily digested amylopectin starch by downregulating the activity of two enzymes, so increasing the amount of amylose in the grain from 20 to 30% to an impressive 85%.  

The non-GM breeding approach works because the building blocks for both amylopectin and amylose starch synthesis are the same. With the enzymes involved in making amylopectin not working, more blocks are then available for amylose synthesis.  

cloud gif

Originally posted by flyngdream

‘Resistant starch is starch that is not digested and reaches the large intestines where it can be fermented by bacteria. Usually amylose is what is resistant to digestion,’ comments Mike Keenan, food and nutrition scientist at Louisiana State University, US. ‘Most people consume far too little fibre, so consuming products higher in resistant starch would be beneficial.’

He notes that fermentation of starch in the gut causes the production of short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate that ‘have effects throughout the body, even the mental health of humans’.  

 GM wheat

The GM wheat will hit US supermarkets in 2019. Image: Pxhere

The super-fibre wheat stems from a collaboration begun in 2006 between French firm Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients, Australian science agency CSIRO, and the Grains Research and Development Corporation, an Australian government agency.

This resulted in a spin out company, Arista Cereal Technologies. After the US, Arista reports that the next markets will be in Australia and Japan.

Sustainability & Environment

The Haber process currently helps feed more than half the world, producing 150m tonnes of ammonia a year. This is forecast to rise further, in line with the food demand of a growing world population.

And yet, it has serious drawbacks. In its traditional form, the process requires high temperatures – around 500°C – to make the extremely stable molecule nitrogen reactive.

fire gif

Originally posted by foreverfallll

The Haber process takes place at extremely high temperatures, similar to that of an average fire.

It also needs high pressure to shift the equilibrium towards the desired product. The process is sensitive to oxygen, meaning that nitrogen and hydrogen must be introduced as purified elements, rather than as air and water.

These requirements together make the process extremely energy-hungry; estimated to consume between 1% and 2% of global primary energy production. In 2010, the ammonia industry emitted 245m tonnes of CO2 globally, corresponding to half the UK’s emissions. 

 Carl Bosch

The Haber process was developed by Carl Bosch (left) and Fritz Haber (right) in the early 20th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In nature, the process relies on the highly complex enzyme nitrogenase, operating at an ambient pressure and temperature. But using the entire biological system would not be economical for large-scale industrial synthesis, and thus the search for an inorganic system that matches the performance of the biological has become an important challenge.  

In recent years, novel electrochemical approaches and new catalysts have yielded promising results suggesting that, at least for small-scale synthesis, other ways may have a future.

The chemical reaction that feeds the world. Video: TED-Ed  

‘The last [few] years brought some spectacular results on ammonia synthesis research,’ comments Hans Fredriksson from Syngaschem at Eindhoven, Netherlands.

‘On the catalyst side, there is the discovery of ‘super promoters’, helping N2 dissociation, allowing lower process temperatures, while optimised catalyst formulations yield significant improvements in activity. 

‘Perhaps even more exciting are new approaches in processing, for example by electrochemistry, or simply running the reaction in an electric field, or bringing plasmas into play,’ he said.

electricity gif

Originally posted by mondo80s90spictorama

In 2013, Shanwen Tao, then at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK, and colleagues demonstrated for the first time the production of ammonia from air and water, at ambient temperature and pressure, using a proton-conducting Nafion membrane in an electrochemical approach. 

Nafion, a Teflon-like material that conducts cations but neither electrons nor anions, is also used in fuel cells. 

‘Electrochemical synthesis of ammonia is an important new approach for efficient synthesis of ammonia using green renewable electricity as the energy source. This could be a key technology for a possible ‘ammonia economy’,’ where ammonia replaces or complements hydrogen as an energy carrier, says Tao.

 renewable energy

Researchers hope new approaches will be supported by renewable energy, reducing CO2 emissions. Image: Pexels

Separate efforts using different routes are being developed in Japan, with a particular focus on ruthenium as an efficient catalyst. One approach is to apply super promoters to provide electrons that destabilise nitrogen by weakening the triple bond and making the molecule more reactive for ammonia synthesis.

This was first reported in 2012 by Hideo Hosono’s group at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who used ruthenium catalysts in combination with ‘electrides’ – a new class of ionic materials where electrons serve as the anions.

The method operates at atmospheric pressure and temperatures between 250 and 400°C, and hydrogen poisoning of ruthenium catalysts is no longer a problem.

 Ruthenium

Ruthenium is a type of metal in the platinum group. Image: Metalle-w/      Wikimedia Commons

‘This catalyst exhibits the highest activity and excellent long-term stability,’ says Hosono, who sees the future of his methods in distributed, small-scale applications of ammonia synthesis.

Hans Niemantsverdriet, director of SynCat@Beijing, China, acknowledges the rapid progress being made, but also strikes a note of caution.

‘In spite of interesting discoveries, I find it hard to imagine that these improvements will be able to replace the current large-scale and fully optimised technology,’ he says. ‘In the fertiliser area, novel technology will at best become a niche market for very special situations. Also, the CO2 footprint is hardly diminished.’

 fertiliser3

Ammonia is a core component of fertiliser, feeding nitrogen to plants for photosynthesis. Image: Maurice van Bruggen/Wikimedia Commons

In the long term, Niemantsverdriet has hope for the ammonia economy as championed by Tao and others, providing carbon-free hydrogen from renewable energies. 

‘I strongly believe that there will be scope for large industrial parks where this technology can be cleverly integrated with gasification of coal in China, and perhaps biomass elsewhere,’ he says. ‘If dimensioned properly, this has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint in the future.’

 

Energy

Determining the efficacy of organic solar cell mixtures is a time-consuming and tired practice, relying on post-manufacturing analysis to find the most effective combination of materials.

Now, an international group of researchers – from North Carolina State University in the US and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology – have developed a new quantitative approach that can identify effective mixtures quickly and before the cell goes through production.

 thinfilm solar cell

Development of a thin-film solar cell. Image: science photo/Shutterstock

By using the solubility limit of a system as a parameter, the group looked to find the processing temperature providing the optimum performance and largest processing window for the system, said Harald Ade, co-corresponding author and Professor of Physics at NC State.

‘Forces between molecules within a solar cell’s layers govern how much they will mix – if they are very interactive they will mix but if they are repulsive they won’t,’ he said. ‘Efficient solar cells are a delicate balance. If the domains mix too much or too little, the charges can’t separate or be harvested effectively.’

tea gif

Originally posted by itadakimasu-letmeeat

‘We know that attraction and repulsion depend on temperature, much like sugar dissolving in coffee – the saturation, or maximum mixing of the sugar with the coffee, improves as the temperature increases. We figured out the saturation level of the ‘sugar in the coffee’ as a function of temperature,’ he said.

Organic solar cells are a type of photovoltaic –  which convert energy from the sun into electrons – that uses organic electronics to generate electricity. This type of cell can be produced cheaply, and is both lightweight and flexible, making it a popular option for use in solar panels.

 Photovoltaic systems

Photovoltaic systems are made up of organic solar cells that convert sunlight into energy. Image: Pxhere

However, difficulties in the production process, including an effective process to determine efficiency of potential material combinations, is stalling its development.

‘In the past, people mainly studied this parameter in systems at room temperature using crude approximations,’ said Long Ye, first author and postdoctoral researcher at NC State. ‘They couldn’t measure it with precision and at temperatures corresponding to processing conditions, which are much hotter.’

Faces of Chemistry: Organic solar cells at BASF. Video: Royal Society of Chemistry

‘The ability to measure and model this parameter will also offer valuable lessons about processing and not just material pairs.’

But the process still needs refinement, said Ade. ‘Our ultimate goal is to form a framework and experimental basis on which chemical structural variation might be evaluated by simulations on the computer before laborious synthesis is attempted,’ he said.

Energy

 Tesla

Tesla is at the forefront of industrial battery technology research. 

Electric cars are accelerating commercially. General Motors has already sold 12,000 models of its Chevrolet Bolt and Daimler announced in September 2017 that it is to invest $1bn to produce electric cars in the US, with Investment bank ING, meanwhile, predicts that European cars will go fully electric by 2035.

‘Batteries are a global industry worth tens of billions of dollars, but over the next 10 to 20 years it will probably grow to many hundreds of billions per year,’ says Gregory Offer, battery researcher at Imperial College London. ‘There is an opportunity now to invest in an industry, so that when it grows exponentially you can capture value and create economic growth.’

The big opportunity for technology disruption lies in extending battery lifetime, says Offer, whose team at Imperial takes market-ready or prototype battery devices into their lab to model the physics and chemistry going on inside, and then figures out how to improve them.

Lithium batteries, the battery technology of choice, are built from layers, each connected to a current connector and theoretically generating equivalent power, which flows out through the terminals. However, improvements in design of packs can lead to better performance and slower degradation.

 Lithium batteries

Lithium batteries need to be adapted for electric vehicle use. Image: Public Domain Pictures

For many electric vehicles, cooling plates are placed on each side of the battery cell, but the middle layers get hotter and fatigue faster. Offer’s group cooled the cell terminals instead, because they are connected to every layer. ‘You want the battery operating warmish, not too hot and not too cold,’ he says.

‘Keeping the temperature like that, we could get more energy out and extend the lifetime three-fold.’ If the expensive Li ion batteries in electric cars can outlive the car, he says their resale value will go up and dramatically alter the economic calculation when purchasing the car. ‘If we can get costs down, we will see more electric vehicles, and reduced emissions and improved air quality,’ Offer says.


Alternatives to lithium ion

Battery systems management and thermal regulation will allow current lithium batteries to be continually improved, but there are fundamental limits to this technology. ‘Lithium ion has a good ten years of improvements ahead,’ Offer predicts. ‘At that point we will hit a plateau and we are going to need technologies like lithium (Li) sulfur.’

 

Will Batteries Power The World? | The Limits Of Lithium-ion. Video:  minutephysics

Li sulfur has a theoretical energy density five times higher than Li ion. In September 2017, US space agency NASA said it will work with Oxis Energy in Oxford, UK, to evaluate its Li sulfur cells for applications where weight is crucial, such as drones, high-altitude aircraft and planetary missions.

However, Li sulfur is not the only challenger to Li ion. Toyota is working to develop solid-state batteries, which use solids like ceramics as the electrolyte. ‘They are based around a class of material that can conduct ions at room temperature as a solid,’ Offer explains. ‘The advantage is that you can then use metallic lithium as the anode. This means there is less parasitic mass, increasing energy density.’


Futuristic chemistries

 BMWs electric cars

The carbon-fiber structure and Li ion battery motor of one of BMW’s electric cars. Image: Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

For electric cars, the ultimate technology in terms of energy density is rechargeable metal-air batteries. These work by oxidising metals such as lithium, zinc or aluminium with oxygen from the air. ‘Making a rechargeable air breathing electrode is really hard,’ warns Offer. ‘To get the metal to give up the oxygen over and over again, it’s difficult.’ 

Development in the area looks promising, with the UK nurturing battery-focused SMEs and forward-thinking research groups in universities. The latest investment plan envisages support that links across research, innovation and scale-up, as championed by Mark Walport, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor.

The Faraday Challenge – part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Video: Innovate UK  

Introducing a programme to directly tackle this challenge ‘would drive improved efficiency of translation of UK science excellence into desirable economic outcomes; would leverage significant industrial investment in the form of a “deal” with industry; and would send a strong investment signal globally,’ says Walport.

Health & Wellbeing

 Psilocybin mushrooms

Psilocybin mushrooms have psychedelic properties. Image: Wikimedia Commons 

The psychoactive compound in psychedelic ‘magic mushrooms’ could pave the way for new drugs to treat depression, according to a new study. Patients in the study reported that their mood had lifted, they felt less depressed and were less stressed immediately after taking psilocybin. Nearly half (47%) were still benefiting five weeks after discontinuing treatment.

Robin Carhart-Harris and his team at Imperial College London, UK – the Psychedelic Research Group – gave psilocybin to 19 patients suffering from ‘treatment resistant’ depression, who had failed to benefit from other depression therapies. They were given 10mg initially and 25mg one week later.

 Psychedelic Research Group

The Psychedelic Research Group is the first in 40 years to use LSD in research in the UK since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Image: Pixabay

‘Several of our patients described feeling “reset” after the treatment and often used computer analogies,’ said Carhart-Harris. ’Psilocybin may be giving these individuals the temporary kick start they need to break out of their depressive states.’

Functional MRI scans measuring activity and blood flow in the brain showed marked differences after the treatment. There was reduced blood flow to areas of the brain, including the amygdala, which processes emotional responses, such as stress and fear. Another brain network appeared to ‘stabilise’ after treatment.

neuron growth

Originally posted by midwestmaryjade

‘fMRI scans indicate that the communication within a certain prefronto-limbic circuit known to regulate affective responsiveness, is normalised one day after psilocybin treatment,’ said Imperial College psychologist Tobias Buchborn. ‘This normalisation seems specifically related to the feeling of unity experienced during the psilocybin session.’

The trial didn’t include a control/placebo group for comparison. However, the team plans to compare the effects of psilocybin against a leading antidepressant in a six-week trial in 2018.

 neuroimaging

Scientists used neuroimaging to track the effectiveness of the treatment.

‘These are exciting, but preliminary findings,’ said Mitul Mehta, professor of neuroimaging & psychopharmacology at King’s College London. ‘It is only a single dose of psilocybin, but this was able to reduce symptoms and produce changes in the same brain networks we know are involved in depression. This impressive study provides a clear rationale for longer-term, controlled studies.’

‘Some of the next challenges are to see if the therapeutic effects hold up in larger groups,’ commented Anil Seth, professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at Sussex University, UK: ‘And to understand more about how the changes in brain activity elicited by psilocybin underpin both the transient changes in conscious experience the drug produces, as well as the more long-lasting effects on depression.’

Psychedelics: Lifting the veil | Robin Carhart-Harris | TEDxWarwick Video: TEDx Talks

The trial also backs up the results of an earlier study by Robin Carhart-Harris and coworkers in 2016, which found that psilocybin reduced symptoms in 12 treatment resistant patients, five of whom were no longer classed as depressed three months later. Also in 2016, a trial by other researchers in the US demonstrated that a single dose could alleviate the anxiety and depression of people with advanced cancer for six months or longer.

 

Sustainability & Environment

Scientists have developed a new process to manufacture ‘green’ plastic that could significantly reduce costs and provide a cleaner alternative to current materials.

Using fructose and gamma-Valerolactone (GVL) – a plant-derived solvent – researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison,US, have found a way to produce furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) that is both cost-effective and high-yielding, meaning a large amount of the product can be made. FDCA is a precursor to the renewable plastic polyethylene furanoate (PEF).

 furandicarboxylic acid

A crystal of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) a plastic precursor created with biomass instead of petroleum. Image: Ali Hussain Motagamwala and James Runde for UW-Madison

‘Until now, FDCA has had a very low solubility in practically any solvent you make it in,’ says co-author Ali Hussain Motagamwala. ‘You have to use a lot of solvent to get a small amount of FDCA, and you end up with high separation costs and undesirable waste products.’

Currently, the plastics market relies heavily on the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from petroleum, to meet increasing demand for plastic products.

How is FDCA made in industry? Video: Avantium

The team, alongside Motagamwala, have been able to convert fructose to FDCA in a two-step process using a solvent system of one-part GVL and one-part water.

According to Motagamwala, using GVL as a solvent is the key to reducing the high expenses that FDCA production incurs. ‘Sugars and FDCA are both highly soluble in [GVL], you get high yields, and you can easily separate and recycle the solvent,’ he says.

 Fructose

Fructose is a plant-based sugar found in most fruits. Image: Pexels

The team’s study also includes an extensive techno-economic analysis of the ‘green’ process, suggesting that FDCA could be produced for around £1,000 a tonne – reduced further if the reaction time and cost of feedstock could be lowered through further research.

A more cost-effective alternative to PET could have a significant impact on the plastics market, which produces an estimated 1.5m tonnes a year.

coke gif

Originally posted by peteneems

Major companies – from Coca-Cola to Procter & Gamble – are committing to 100% use of PEF in their plastic products, providing a huge market need for its precursor FDCA.

‘We think this is the streamlined and inexpensive approach to making FDCA that many people in the plastics industry has been waiting for,’ says James Dumesic, team-leader and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the university.

 plastic waste

Introducing cost-competitive renewable plastics to the market could significantly reduce plastic waste. Image: Pixabay

‘Our hope is that this research opens the door even further to cost-competitive renewable plastics.’

Process development is an essential area of research that underpins advances in a huge range of industries. 

Agrifood

Russian researchers have developed new fertilisers based on nanopowders of transition metals. In field trials on agricultural crops, harvests increased by more than a quarter, compared with conventional fertilisers.

Iron, cobalt and copper affect a plant’s level of resistance to pests and diseases. These microelements are typically introduced into the soil as soluble salts, but rain and irrigation can wash them away, requiring further applications. They also have potential to disrupt local ecosystems as they pass into the groundwater.

 irrigation system

An irrigation system in Idaho, US. Image: Jeroen Komen@Wikimedia Commons

The team, led by the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Moscow, has developed a group of fertilisers that are applied as a powder to plant seeds, without losses to the soil or water systems. In this way, ‘the future plant is provided with a supply of necessary microelements at the stage of seeding,’ reports Alexander Gusev, head of the project at NUST’s Department of Functional Nanosystems. 

‘[It’s] a one-seed treatment by a product containing the essential microelements in nanoform. These particles of transition metals – iron, copper, cobalt – have a powerful stimulating effect on plant growth in the initial growth phase.’

Gusev reports improved field germination and increased yields of 20-25%.

image

Originally posted by magical-girl-stims

The main difficulty was to produce a powder from the nanoparticles, which tended to quickly stick together as aggregates, says Gusev – a problem they solved by using organic stabilisers and then subjecting the colloidal solutions to ultrasonic processing.

Gusev now wants to discvover how the new fertiliser acts in different soils, and in relation to different plant cultures. Its environmental safety also needs to be evaluated before widespread use, he adds.

But Steve McGrath, head of sustainable agricultural sciences at Rothamsted Research, is sceptical. Plants are adapted to take up ionic forms of these microelements, not nanoparticles, he says. ‘Also, seeds do not take up much micronutrients. Roots do that, and depending on the crop and specific nutrient, most uptake is near to the growing ends of the root, and throughout the growing season, when the seed and nearby roots are long gone.’

 fertiliser2

Critics are skeptical of the efficacy of the new kind of fertiliser. Image: Pexels

If there is an effect on crop yield, he thinks it is more likely to be due to the early antifungal and antibacterial effects of nanoparticles. ‘They have a large and highly reactive surface area and if they are next to membranes of pathogens when they react they generate free radicals that disrupt those membranes. So, in a soil that is particularly disease-infected, there may be some protection at the early seedling stage.’

Energy

A huge challenge faced in the pursuit of a mission to Mars is space radiation, which is known to cause several damaging diseases – from Alzheimer’s disease to cancer.

And soon, these problems will not just be exclusive to astronauts. Speculation over whether space tourism is viable is becoming a reality, with Virgin Galactic and SpaceX flights already planned for the near future. The former reportedly sold tickets for US$250,000.

But could questions over the health risks posed hinder these plans?

rocket gif

Originally posted by blazepress


What is space radiation?

In space, particle radiation includes all the elements on the periodic table, each travelling at the speed of light, leading to a high impact and violent collisions with the nuclei of human tissues.

The type of radiation you would endure in space is also is different to that you would experience terrestrially. On Earth, radiation from the sun and space is absorbed by the atmosphere, but there is no similar protection for astronauts in orbit. In fact, the most common form of radiation here is electrochemical – think of the X-rays used in hospitals.

 The sun

The sun is just one source of radiation astronauts face in space. Image: Pixabay

On the space station – situated within the Earth’s magnetic field ­– astronauts experience ten times the radiation that naturally occurs on Earth. The station’s position in the protective atmosphere means that astronauts are in far less danger compared with those travelling to the Moon, or even Mars.

Currently, NASA’s Human Research Program is looking at the consequences of an astronaut’s exposure to space radiation, as data on the effects is limited by the few subjects over a short timeline of travel.

Radiation poses one of the biggest problems for space exploration. Video: NASA

However, lining the spacecraft with heavy materials to reduce the amount of radiation reaching the body isn’t as easy as a solution as it is seems.

‘NASA doesn’t want to use heavy materials like lead for shielding spacecraft because the incoming space radiation will suffer many nuclear collisions with the shielding, leading to the production of additional secondary radiation,’ says Tony Slaba, a research physicist at NASA. ‘The combination of the incoming space radiation and secondary radiation can make the exposure worse for astronauts.’


Finding solutions

As heavy materials cannot hamper the effects of radiation, researchers have turned to a more light-weight solution: plastics. One element – hydrogen – is well recognised for its ability to block radiation, and is present in polyethylene, the most common type of plastic.

 the Dark Rift

A thick dust cloud called the Dark Rift blocks the view of the Milky Way. Image: NASA

Engineers have developed plastic-filled tiles, that can be made using astronauts rubbish, to create an extra layer of radiation protection. Water, which is already an essential for space flight, can be stored alongside these tiles to create a ‘radiation storm shelter’ in the spacecraft.

But research is still required. Plastic is not a strong material and cannot be used as a building component of spacecrafts.

Health & Wellbeing

Around 10 million medical devices are implanted each year into patients, while one-third of patients suffer some complication as a result. Now, researchers in Switzerland have developed a way to protect implants by dressing them in a surgical membrane of cellulose hydrogel to make them more biocompatible with patients’ own tissues and body fluids.  

‘It is more than 60 years since the first medical implant was implanted in humans and no matter how hard we have tried to imitate nature, the body recognises the implant as foreign and tends to initiate a foreign body reaction, which tries to isolate and kill the implant,’ says Simone Bottan at, who leads ETH Zurich spin-off company Hylomorph.

 Hylomorph

Hylomorph is a spin-off company of ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Image: ETH-Bibliothek@Wikimedia Commons

Up to one-fifth of all implanted patients require corrective intervention or implant replacement due toan immune response that wraps the implant in connective tissue (fibrosis), which is also linked with infections and can cause patients pain. Revision surgeries are costly and require lengthy recovery times.

The new membrane is made by growing bacteria in a bioreactor on micro-engineered silicone surfaces, pitted with a hexagonal arrangement of microwells. When imprinted onto the membrane, the microwells impede the formation of layers of fibroblasts and other cells involved in fibrosis.

 pacemaker

25,000 people in the UK have a pacemaker fitted each year. Image: Science Photo Library

The researchers ‘tuned’ the bacteria, Acetobacter xylinum, to produce ca 800 micron-thick membranes of cellulose nanofibrils that surgeons can wrap snuggly around implants. The cellulose membranes led to an 80% reduction of fibrotic tissue thickness in a pig model after six weeks, according to a study currently in press. Results after three and 12 months should be released in January 2018.

It is hoped the technology will receive its first product market authorisation by 2020. First-in-man trials will focus on pacemakers and defibrillators and will be followed by breast reconstruction implants. The strategy will be to coat the implant with a soft cellulose hydrogel, consisting of 98% water and 2% cellulose fibres.  

The membrane will improve the biocompatibility of implants. Video: Wyss Zurich

‘Fibrosis of implantables is a major medical problem,’ notes biomolecular engineer Joshua Doloff at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adding that many coating technologies are under development.

‘[The claim] that no revision surgery due to fibrosis will be needed is quite a strong claim to make,’ says Doloff, who would also like to see data on the coating’s robustness and longevity.

The silicone topography is designed using standard microfabrication techniques used in the electronics industry, assisted by IBM Research Labs.  

Sustainability & Environment

English wine is on the rise. In 50 years, production has increased by more than three orders of magnitude, from a negligible 1,500 bottles/year to a respectable 5.3 million.  

Meanwhile, on the other side of the English Channel, grapes are harvested around two weeks before the traditional dates. In the Champagne region, harvest kicked off on 26 August 2017, while the average date for previous years was 10 September. In Burgoyne, home of Beaujolais wines, harvest began on 23 August, also two weeks ahead of schedule. Harvest workers in that area are also doing night shifts to reduce heat stress for the sensitive grapes.

 French vineyards

French vineyards are struggling with the changes to traditional harvests. Image: Max Pixel

Both phenomena – the success of English wine and the earlier harvests in France – are linked to climate change. In a few decades, the favourable wine-growing conditions historically enjoyed by the Champagne region may have migrated to England.

As the life cycle of the grapevine – and therefore quality and quantity of the wine obtained – is extremely sensitive to temperature and weather extremes, wine growers have already been noticing the effects of climate change for years. Researchers have detailed how conditions have changed, how they are likely to change further, and what vineyards can do to adapt.


High-value product

All agricultural products are likely to be affected by climate change at some point, but wine occupies a special position due to its high value. Therefore, wine growers have always watched the weather and its effects on their vineyards very closely, and recorded their observations.

cheese and wine gif

Originally posted by butteryplanet

Climate scientist Benjamin Cook from Columbia University at New York and ecologist Elizabeth Wolkovich from Harvard University, have analysed harvest data spanning more than 400 years, from 1600 to 2007, from European regions, together with the weather data.

While many studies have covered the last few decades, this one reaches back to the time before the Industrial Revolution.

Higher temperatures in spring and summer generally speed the whole process and lead to earlier harvests, like the one in 2017, while cool and rainy summers can delay the phrenology and thus the harvest time. Traditionally, the observation was that a warm summer and a period of drought just before grape picking is the best recipe for an early harvest.

 Grape picking

Grape picking is easiest after a warm summer. Image: Pixabay

‘Our research, and other work, has clearly and unequivocally demonstrated that climate change is already affecting viticulture worldwide,’ explains Cook, adding that: ‘There are lots of opportunities for adaptation in various locations, such as planting different varieties, but the most important thing is for people to starting planning for the next several decades, when conditions are likely to get even warmer still.’


Adapt or move?

So, what could be changed? Short of pulling up Pinot Noir vines in Champagne and replanting them in Dorset, there are some steps wine-makers can take to ensure a good harvest.

The Chemistry of Wine. Video: Reactions

For instance, growers could add a few days to the ripening cycle by delaying the spring pruning, or by allowing the vines to grow higher above the ground, where the air is slightly cooler than just above the soil. While these changes are benign, other measures, such as reducing the leaf area, may have complex consequences that could interfere with the quality of the wine.

In selecting the plant material, growers could reverse the trends of the 20th Century, when it made sense to select rapidly ripening varieties. Simply by adapting the choice of variety from among the range of varieties already used in a given region to the changing climate, growers can to some extent mitigate the anticipated effects.

cheers gif

Originally posted by wildsouls-thirstyhearts

Alternatively, wine production could migrate closer to the poles. Wines now coming from California may be produced in Washington State, and the premium fizz we now call Champagne may one day be known as Devon or Kent.

 

Agrifood

 Cassie Sims

Cassie Sims is a PhD researcher at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK. Photo: Rothamsted

Rothamsted Research is the oldest agricultural research station in the world – we even have a Guinness World Record for the longest running continuous experiment! Established in 1843, next year we celebrate our 175th anniversary, and as a Chemistry PhD student at the institute today, I can’t wait to celebrate.

 Wheat samples2

Wheat samples from the record-breaking Broadbalk experiment. Photo: Cassie Sims

Rothamsted is known for many amazing scientific accomplishments, and it has a rich history, which I have explored through many of the exhibitions put on by the institute for the staff every month or so. 

 old labs set up

One of the old labs set up for the exhibitions we hold at Rothamsted. Photo: Cassie Sims

Working in what was the Biological Chemistry department, I am following in the footsteps of Chemists such as Michael Elliott, who developed a group of insecticides known as pyrethroids. These are one of the most prolific insecticides used in the world, still widely used today and researched here at Rothamsted – in particular, the now-prevalent insecticidal resistance to them. 

I was privileged to view an exhibit of Michael Elliott’s medals late last year at Rothamsted – one of the opportunities we are given as staff here. Recently, I was also able to view a collection of calculators and computers from the earliest mechanical ones, to Sir Ronald Fisher’s very own ‘Millionaire’ Calculator, which could multiply, add and subtract entirely mechanically.

 Sir Ronald Fishers Millionaire Calculator

Sir Ronald Fisher’s ‘Millionaire’ Calculator. Photo: Cassie Sims

In more recent times, Rothamsted has had an update (a little more than a lick of paint) with newer buildings, labs and equipment constantly being added. My office and lab are situated in the architecturally interesting Centenary building, which was built only 10 years ago. Some of the research has had an update too – plant science research is a bit more focused on molecular biology these days, and our chemistry has been significantly advanced over the last century by advances in analytical equipment. 

bug gif

Originally posted by fujinliow

A few years ago, Rothamsted was briefly the centre of media attention due to a ‘controversial’ GM field trial testing wheat made to emit (E)-β-farnesene, the aphid alarm pheromone, and whether the plants could repel aphids. 

SPOILER ALERT: 

…they couldn’t, but this was one of the first type of GM trials of its type, and it was an interesting study that combined many disciplines of science, from molecular biology and plant science, to entomology and chemical ecology.

sack race gif

Originally posted by southwestcollectionarchives

Rothamsted is not just about science, either – we have a few longstanding social traditions such as Hallowe’en parties and Harvest Festival, not forgetting of course my favourite; our summer Sports Day, which provides much entertainment in the form of serious research scientists participating in sack races to win some outstandingly tacky trophies. We also have an onsite bar (if that is what you could call it), which is a little more like a converted cricket club, and serves as a venue for most events, and has been the location of many of my great memories.

If I had to describe being a student at Rothamsted in one word, it would be weird! There is a lot of fun to be had, but we are also surrounded by an incredible history that we cannot forget as we forge a new path in our fields (literally and scientifically!).

 cassie sims2

I hope one day that I can leave some kind of mark here – but even if not, I will be happy to have been part of such a prestigious institute and to have worked alongside such great scientific minds.

What are the sustainability challenges being tackled by researchers at Rothamsted? Sir John Beddington, Chair of the Rothamsted Research Board gave this talk at SCI in London in September – part of our ongoing programme of free-to-attend public evening lectures.

Careers

 Delegates at this years Young Chemist

Delegates at this year’s Young Chemist in Industry conference. Image: SCI

Every year, SCI’s Young Chemist’s Panel organise their Young Chemist in Industry event, where early career industrial chemists meet to showcase their research and network with their academics counterparts and other companies. 

This year, the conference was held at AstraZeneca’s Macclesfield base. Exhibitors are also judged, with the winner receiving a £150 Amazon voucher.

 Julien Vantourout

Julien Vantourout. Image: SCI

This year’s Young Chemist in Industry award went to Julian Vantourout, a final-year industrial PhD student at GSK and the University of Strathclyde.

His presentation focused on the limitations of the Chan-Lam amination of aryl boronic acid used in medicinal and process chemistry.

 Tim ORiordan and Ellen Gallimore

Tim O'Riordan and Ellen Gallimore. Image: SCI

Two runners-up received a £50 Amazon voucher each; Tim O’Riordan and Ellen Gallimore. 

Tim O’Riordan is a Principal Research Chemist in Syngenta’s crop protection department. he won the runner-up prize this year for his work in the synthesis and evaluation of new herbicides.

Ellen Gallimore is currently finishing her DPhil at Oxford University and works for UCB in their medicinal chemistry department. She received the runner-up prize for her exhibit explaining the biocatalytical potential of enzymes on small molecule drug discovery.

 Fluorochem

Image: Fluorochem Ltd

Fluorochem Ltd were at the event promoting their business to delegates. They supply intermediates used in R&D to pharmaceutical companies.

 Manchester Organics

Image: Manchester Organics

Manchester Organics work in fluorination and high pressure chemistry.

 Radleys

Image: Radleys

Radleys were on hand to tell delegates about their sustainable chemistry equipment.

Science & Innovation

It has been a year since Prime Minister Theresa May announced the launch of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund at CBI’s annual conference. At the time, May said the fund would ‘help to address Britain’s historic weakness on commercialisation and turning our world-leading research into long-term success’.

Since then, Innovate UK has worked closely with the government and research councils to identify the great innovation challenges the UK faces.

‘Innovate UK have been in this right from the very beginning,’ said Ruth McKernan, Chief Executive of Innovate UK, speaking at Innovate 2017. McKernan explained that the organisation has held several engagement events to find out what ‘industry and researchers see as the challenges of the future and where economic growth can be developed in the UK’.

city gif

Originally posted by juliendouvier

The first three challenges sponsored by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund were announced in April this year: The Faraday challenge, medicines manufacturing, and robotics and autonomous systems.

Andrew Tyrer, Interim Director of Robotics and Autonomous Systems is now responsible for the £69m investment into research on AI in extreme conditions.

Research projects in this cohort include robotics in deep mining, space exploration, and off-shore energy. ‘One of the challenges is that you cannot put people in these environments,’ he said.

 Space

Space is just one of the dangerous environments being researched in robotics projects. Image: NASA

However, the UK does not currently have the research capacity to access the global market, Tyrer explained. For example, he said ‘the nuclear decommissioning market in five years will be at £150bn a year in Europe alone’ – a market the UK is currently struggling to make an impact.

‘The programme is about taking academic and business excellence, linking those value chains together, and building those industries,’ Tyrer said.

On the other end of the spectrum, is the Faraday Challenge – a ‘commitment’ to research into the battery development of driverless cars and an area of research the UK has already seen success in – headed by Jacqui Murray and Kathryn Magnay.

 petrol and diesel vehicles

The UK have pledged to have all petrol and diesel vehicles off roads by 2040. Image: Wikimedia Commons

‘Automotive has been a real success story in the UK in the last 10 years,’ said Murray, with the UK reaching ‘world-class’ in productivity levels.

However, there are ways the UK needs to improve, said Magnay. ‘In the UK we have a huge gap between the research that we do and how you scale that up in the manufacturing process,’ she said.

This is the inspiration for the upcoming £65m Faraday Battery Institute, which will serve as a hub for universities, as well as other academic institutions and industry partners, to further their science. Magnay said that Innovate UK wants to ‘provide a facility that companies and researchers can go to and take their ideas to trial them at scale’.

Will smart energy solutions be the next challenge?

Further challenges under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund are currently unknown, although there are rumours of an early 2018 announcement. Which challenge will be next?

Careers

In early September of this year, 34 final year chemists from all over the United Kingdom descended on GSK Stevenage for a week of all things chemistry, at the 14th Residential Chemistry Training Experience.

A few months prior, an e-flyer had circulated around the Chemistry department at UCL. It advertised the week-long, fully-funded initiative created to give soon-to-be grad chemists insight into the inner workings of the pharma industry. We were told we would also receive help with our soft skills – there was mention of interview prep and help with presentation skills. As someone who doesn’t have an industrial placement year structured into their degree, I was excited to see how different chemistry in academia might be to that in industry, or if there were any differences at all.

 GSK2

A fraction of GSK’s consumer healthcare products. Image: GSK

Two days in labs exposed me to new analytical techniques and gave me an appreciation for how smoothly everything can run. I was assigned a PhD student who supervised me one-on-one – something you’re seldom afforded at university until your masters year. We hoped to synthesise a compound he needed as proof of concept, and we did!

The abundance in resources available and state-of-the-art equipment at every turn highlighted how different an academic PhD might be to an industry one if that’s the route I decided to go down. The week bridged the disconnect I had between what I’d learnt at university and how things are done or appear. 

 The GSK training course

The GSK training course gave me unique insight into the life of a working scientist. Image: Pixabay

For example, I know enzymes can be used to speed up the rate of a biological reaction, but I’d never stopped to think about what they even look like. They come in the form of a sand-like material, if you’re wondering. Before that week, I hadn’t seen a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine – we’d hand in our samples and someone else did the rest. NMR is an analytical technique we employ to characterise samples, double-checking to see we’ve made the right thing. It was great to put all this chemistry into context.

Our evenings were filled with opportunities to meet GSK staff and a networking formal brought in many others from places like SCI and the Royal Society of Chemistry. 

 A Nuclear Magnetic Resonance

A Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine, used by scientists to determine the properties of a molecule. Image: GSK  

During the week, there was a real emphasis on equipping us with the skills and confidence to succeed in whatever we opted to do. That’s exactly how I felt during our day of interview prep. The morning started off with a presentation on the structure of a typical graduate chemistry interview, followed by a comical mock interview before we were set loose with our own interviewer for an hour. Before this, I’d never had someone peer over my shoulder as I drew out mechanisms, and I’d never anticipated that I’d forget some really basic stuff. 

The hour whizzed by and when I was asked how I thought it had gone – terribly – and I was met with feedback that not only left me with more confidence in my own abilities, but an understanding of what a good interview is. It’s definitely OK to forget things – we’re human – but what’s most important is showing how you can get back to the right place using logic when you do forget.

watch gif

Originally posted by howbehindwow

Whether you’re curious about what goes on in companies like GSK, know you definitely want to work in pharma or you’re approaching your final year and just don’t know what you want to do (me), I’d recommend seeking out opportunities like this one. I got to meet people at my own university that I’d never spoken to and had great fun surrounded by others with the same love for organic chemistry.

 

Health & Wellbeing

Large-scale industrial mining of asbestos began towards the end of the 19th Century; predominantly in Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Brazil. 

This relatively cheap material with excellent fire and heat resistance, good electrical insulating properties, and high-tensile strength was used widely in the construction industry and in many other products, including brake pads, hair dryers, and industrial filters for wine, beer and pharmaceuticals. Worldwide, an estimated two million tons of asbestos is used annually.


Health risks

But asbestos exposure can be deadly. Anyone who handles the material or breathes in its fibres puts themselves at risk of lung diseases, such as asbestosis or cancer. The World Health Organization estimates that in a single year over 100,000 deaths are due to asbestos-related diseases.

 Lung asbestos

Lung asbestos bodies after chemical digestion of lung tissue. Image: Wikimedia Commons

‘The truth is that it is a nasty, hazardous, toxic, carcinogenic material that has made millions and millions of people sick,’ says Arthur Frank, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University, Philadelphia, US. Frank is a longtime advocate for banning the mineral.

To date, around 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos, including the UK. Russia, India, and China, however, still use asbestos in a range of products. The US is the last among developed countries not to ban asbestos entirely. More significant for Western countries are the millions of tonnes of asbestos left in buildings – asbestos becomes a problem if disturbed, especially if the fibres go undetected.

 construction workers

Asbestos is a health risk to construction workers. Image: Pixabay

Traditionally, those who work in the building trade are most at risk, though workers can bring home fibres on their clothes, which poses a risk to anyone they come into contact with.

‘There is a significant amount of data that points to as little as one day of exposure being sufficient to give rise to malignancy in humans and animals,’ says Frank. It’s unclear precisely the cellular mechanism, he says, but health experts agree that asbestos poses a severe public health risk. In the UK, asbestos is responsible for half of work-related cancer deaths.

 The European Parliament

The European Parliament was one of the first to ban all future asbestos use. Image: European Parliament@Flickr

The European Parliament has pushed for the removal of asbestos from all public buildings by 2028. The asbestos industry, however, argues that it is wrong to say that any exposure to asbestos can kill and believes there is a permissible level of exposure.


Rising litigation

In the US, asbestos-related litigation is increasingly common. ‘The companies put up a fight in most cases, delaying settlement until practically the eve of trial and disputing everything they can as to medical diagnosis and causation, and evidence of the plaintiffs’ exposure histories,’ says Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant who has spent 40 years working on asbestos as a public health problem.

However, man-made substitutes for asbestos-based construction materials are available. For over 50 years, asbestos was combined with cement in Europe because its fibres are mechanically strong and durable, says Eshmaeil Ganjian, Professor of Civil Engineering Materials at Coventry University, UK.

 PVA

PVA is also widely used in glue. Image: Pixabay

These boards were used for internal and external walls as well as for roofs. Europe now uses polyvinyl alcohol – widely known as PVA - in its cement boards, Ganjian says, but this is more expensive than asbestos, which has come down in price over the past 20 years.  


Waste not, want not

Ganjian is currently working on a project aimed at replacing asbestos in cement boards in Iran with waste plant fibres, such as Kraft pulp, and polymeric fibres such as acrylic and polypropylene fibres. ‘The idea is to use locally available fibres, so we use cheap acrylic fibres available from petrochemical companies in the region. The strength of cellulose fibres is lower than asbestos fibres, but when we add polypropylene or acrylic or other synthetic fibres then this increases the mechanical strength,’ he explains.

 Shiraz Iran

Shiraz, Iran. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Iranian government subsequently stopped importing asbestos from Russia and banned its use in cement board factories, switching to local alternatives. ‘This was a win-win situation. It saves lives and uses a waste material,’ says Ganjian.  

Health & Wellbeing

Often, the pharmaceutical industry is characterised as the ‘bad guy’ of equality in healthcare. This is particularly evident in the United States, with cases such as Martin Shkreli, whose company Turing Pharmaceuticals infamously increased its leading HIV and malaria drug by over 50 times its value overnight, and a lack of regulation in advertising. The latter is accused of influencing prescriptions of certain brands based on consumer demand, which could lead to unnecessary treatment and addiction.

With stories like these dominating the media, it is no wonder the public if often found to harbour a negative view towards ‘Big Pharma’. However, the actions and motives of this industry are rarely fully understood. Here are five facts about pharmaceutical manufacturing you might not know:


1. Out of 5,000-10,000 compounds tested at the pre-clinical stages, only one drug will make it to market

The drug discovery and development process explained. Video: Novartis

This may seem like slim odds, but there are many stages that come before drug approval to make sure the most effective and reliable product can be used to treat patients.

There are four major phases: discovery and development; pre-clinical research,  including mandatory animal testing; clinical research on people/patients to ensure safety; and review, where all submitted evidence is analysed by the appropriate body in hopes of approval.


2. If discovered today, aspirin might not pass current FDA or EMA rules

 older drugs

Some older drugs on the market would not get approval due to safety issues. Image: Public Domain Pictures

Problems with side effects – aspirin is known to cause painful gastrointestinal problems with daily use – mean that some older drugs that remain available might not have gained approval for widespread use today. Both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and European Medicines Agency (EMA) run programmes that monitor adverse side effects in users to keep consumers up-to-date.

Tighter regulation and increased competition mean that the medicines we take today are arguably more effective and safer than ever.


3. The average cost of drug development has increased by a factor of 15 in 40 years

money gif

Originally posted by blisteredblue

Back in the 1970s, the cost to produce a drug from discovery to market was $179 million. Today, drug companies shell out $2.6 billion for the same process – a 1,352% increase! Even considering inflation rates, this number is significantly higher.

With the average length of time needed to develop a drug now 12 years, time is an obvious reason for the high costs. However, the difficulty of finding suitable candidates at the discovery stage is also to blame. Pre-clinical stages can be resource-intensive and time-consuming, making pharmaceutical companies look towards other methods, such as the use of big data.


4. The US accounts for nearly half of pharmaceutical sales

 The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty. Over 40% of worldwide medicines sales are made by US companies. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The US is the world-leader in pharmaceutical sales, adding $1.2 trillion to the economic output of the US in 2014 and supporting 4.7 million jobs. The country is also home to the top 10 performing pharmaceutical companies, which include Merck, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson.

While the EU’s current share is worth 13.5%, this is expected to fall by 2020 with emerging research countries, such as China, projected to edge closer to the US with a share of 25%.


5. Income from blockbuster drugs drives research into rare diseases

 Rare diseases

Rare diseases are less likely to receive investment for pharmaceutical research. Image: Pixabay

Diseases that affect a large proportion of the worldwide population, such as cancer, diabetes, or depression, are able to produce the biggest revenue for pharmaceutical companies due to the sheer volume of demand. But rarer diseases are not forgotten, as research into these illnesses is likely funded by income from widespread use of the aforementioned medicines.

Rare – or ‘orphan’ – diseases are those that affect a small number of the population, or diseases that are more prevalent in the developing world. With the increasing cost of producing a drug, it becomes risky for pharmaceutical companies to create a fairly-priced drug for a small fraction of patients.

However, this seems to be changing. Researchers from Bangor University, UK, found that pharmaceutical companies that market rare disease medicines are five times more profitable than those who do not, and have up to 15% higher market value, which could finally provide a financial incentive for necessary research.

Health & Wellbeing

What is paralysis? Video: Doctors’ Circle

Patients suffering from paralysis can at last look forward to a time when their condition is cured, and they can walk, run or move their damaged limbs again, as recent advancements show the possibility of reversal.    

‘The environment has never been better for exploring ways to restore neurological function, including paralysis – in fact, there has been a dramatic escalation of the entire research spectrum aimed at functional neurorestoration,’ says Charles Liu, Director of the University of Southern California Neurorestoration Center.

Paralysis comes in many forms: the paralysis of one limb (monoplegia), one side of the body (hemiplegia), below the waist (paraplegia), and all four limbs below the neck (tetraplegia, or also referred to as quadriplegia).

 paralysis

There are many classifications of paralysis. It can be localised or generalised, and can affect most areas of the body. Image: Pixabay

In an able-bodied person, the brain sends a signal as an electrical impulse, known as an action potential, down the spinal cord to the peripheral nerves, which instruct the muscles to contract and move, whereupon sensors in the muscles and skin send signals back to the brain.

In most paralysis cases, the condition occurs as a result of damage to nerves rather than an injury to the affected area. Strokes are the most common cause of paralysis, followed by spinal cord injuries. Multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, polio, head injuries and several other rare diseases can also cause paralysis.  

neurons gif

Originally posted by palerlotus


Regenerating neurons

‘Long term, we hope to cure paralysis and make the injured walk,’ explains William Sikkema, a graduate student at Rice University, Houston. The challenge is not only to repair cells but to restore connectivity, too. In collaboration with researchers at Konkuk University in South Korea, the team has already made a paralysed rat walk again.

The addition of graphene nanoribbons restored motor and sensory neuronal signals across the previous nerve gap after 24 hours, with almost perfect motor control recovery after a period of healing. ‘Two weeks later, the rat could walk without losing balance, stand up on his hind limbs and use his forelimbs to feed himself with pellets. No recovery was observed in controls,’ the team reported.

‘After a neuron is cut, it doesn’t know where to grow. So, it either doesn’t grow, or grows in the wrong direction,’ says Sikkema. ‘Our graphene nanoribbons act as a scaffolding track, and it tells the neurons where to grow.’

 Rats

Rats are a common animal model in paralysis studies, as they share similar structure and functions with humans. Image: Pexels


Spinal cord stimulation

Electrical stimulation of the spinal cord could also provide a big breakthrough, says Chet Moritz, Co-Director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington, US.

‘We’re seeing some really impressive results with spinal cord stimulation where people with complete paralysis, who have been unable to function, have regained control of their limbs. We didn’t expect this. It’s the most exciting thing we’ve seen in the last 20 years,’ he says.

Last year, a team led by Grégoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology inserted an implant in the brains of paralysed monkeys and another over the spinal cord below the injury. The brain-spine interface worked by capturing leg-moving brain signals, decoded by a computer and sent – bypassing the damaged region – to the second implant, which delivered the signals as electrical impulses to the nerves, causing the leg to move.

Grégoire Courtine talks about his pioneering work on paralysis using electrical stimulation. Video: TED

Within six days, the monkeys had regained the use of their lower limbs and improved even more over time. The success of the experiment has led Courtine to launch a human trial of a spinal implant system.

We may be a long way still from restoring full function, as prior to paralysis, but Moritz is optimistic. Even a modest change, such as the movement of a single finger, can have a dramatic effect on quality of life and independence. ‘In five years, we’ve had dramatic improvement in function,’ he says. ‘It’s an exciting trajectory with tremendous potential.’  


What is paralysis? Video: Doctors’ Circle

Patients suffering from paralysis can at last look forward to a time when their condition is cured, and they can walk, run or move their damaged limbs again, as recent advancements show the possibility of reversal.    

‘The environment has never been better for exploring ways to restore neurological function, including paralysis – in fact, there has been a dramatic escalation of the entire research spectrum aimed at functional neurorestoration,’ says Charles Liu, Director of the University of Southern California Neurorestoration Center.

Paralysis comes in many forms: the paralysis of one limb (monoplegia), one side of the body (hemiplegia), below the waist (paraplegia), and all four limbs below the neck (tetraplegia, or also referred to as quadriplegia).

image

There are many classifications of paralysis. It can be localised or generalised, and can affect most areas of the body. Image: Pixabay

In an able-bodied person, the brain sends a signal as an electrical impulse, known as an action potential, down the spinal cord to the peripheral nerves, which instruct the muscles to contract and move, whereupon sensors in the muscles and skin send signals back to the brain.

In most paralysis cases, the condition occurs as a result of damage to nerves rather than an injury to the affected area. Strokes are the most common cause of paralysis, followed by spinal cord injuries. Multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, polio, head injuries and several other rare diseases can also cause paralysis.  

image

Originally posted by palerlotus


Regenerating neurons

‘Long term, we hope to cure paralysis and make the injured walk,’ explains William Sikkema, a graduate student at Rice University, Houston. The challenge is not only to repair cells but to restore connectivity, too. In collaboration with researchers at Konkuk University in South Korea, the team has already made a paralysed rat walk again.

The addition of graphene nanoribbons restored motor and sensory neuronal signals across the previous nerve gap after 24 hours, with almost perfect motor control recovery after a period of healing. ‘Two weeks later, the rat could walk without losing balance, stand up on his hind limbs and use his forelimbs to feed himself with pellets. No recovery was observed in controls,’ the team reported.

‘After a neuron is cut, it doesn’t know where to grow. So, it either doesn’t grow, or grows in the wrong direction,’ says Sikkema. ‘Our graphene nanoribbons act as a scaffolding track, and it tells the neurons where to grow.’

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Rats are a common animal model in paralysis studies, as they share similar structure and functions with humans. Image: Pexels


Spinal cord stimulation

Electrical stimulation of the spinal cord could also provide a big breakthrough, says Chet Moritz, Co-Director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington, US.

‘We’re seeing some really impressive results with spinal cord stimulation where people with complete paralysis, who have been unable to function, have regained control of their limbs. We didn’t expect this. It’s the most exciting thing we’ve seen in the last 20 years,’ he says.

Last year, a team led by Grégoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology inserted an implant in the brains of paralysed monkeys and another over the spinal cord below the injury. The brain-spine interface worked by capturing leg-moving brain signals, decoded by a computer and sent – bypassing the damaged region – to the second implant, which delivered the signals as electrical impulses to the nerves, causing the leg to move.

Grégoire Courtine talks about his pioneering work on paralysis using electrical stimulation. Video: TED

Within six days, the monkeys had regained the use of their lower limbs and improved even more over time. The success of the experiment has led Courtine to launch a human trial of a spinal implant system.

We may be a long way still from restoring full function, as prior to paralysis, but Moritz is optimistic. Even a modest change, such as the movement of a single finger, can have a dramatic effect on quality of life and independence. ‘In five years, we’ve had dramatic improvement in function,’ he says. ‘It’s an exciting trajectory with tremendous potential.’  

What is paralysis? Video: Doctors’ Circle

Patients suffering from paralysis can at last look forward to a time when their condition is cured, and they can walk, run or move their damaged limbs again, as recent advancements show the possibility of reversal.    

‘The environment has never been better for exploring ways to restore neurological function, including paralysis – in fact, there has been a dramatic escalation of the entire research spectrum aimed at functional neurorestoration,’ says Charles Liu, Director of the University of Southern California Neurorestoration Center.

Paralysis comes in many forms: the paralysis of one limb (monoplegia), one side of the body (hemiplegia), below the waist (paraplegia), and all four limbs below the neck (tetraplegia, or also referred to as quadriplegia).

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There are many classifications of paralysis. It can be localised or generalised, and can affect most areas of the body. Image: Pixabay

In an able-bodied person, the brain sends a signal as an electrical impulse, known as an action potential, down the spinal cord to the peripheral nerves, which instruct the muscles to contract and move, whereupon sensors in the muscles and skin send signals back to the brain.

In most paralysis cases, the condition occurs as a result of damage to nerves rather than an injury to the affected area. Strokes are the most common cause of paralysis, followed by spinal cord injuries. Multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, polio, head injuries and several other rare diseases can also cause paralysis.  

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Originally posted by palerlotus


Regenerating neurons

‘Long term, we hope to cure paralysis and make the injured walk,’ explains William Sikkema, a graduate student at Rice University, Houston. The challenge is not only to repair cells but to restore connectivity, too. In collaboration with researchers at Konkuk University in South Korea, the team has already made a paralysed rat walk again.

The addition of graphene nanoribbons restored motor and sensory neuronal signals across the previous nerve gap after 24 hours, with almost perfect motor control recovery after a period of healing. ‘Two weeks later, the rat could walk without losing balance, stand up on his hind limbs and use his forelimbs to feed himself with pellets. No recovery was observed in controls,’ the team reported.

‘After a neuron is cut, it doesn’t know where to grow. So, it either doesn’t grow, or grows in the wrong direction,’ says Sikkema. ‘Our graphene nanoribbons act as a scaffolding track, and it tells the neurons where to grow.’

image

Rats are a common animal model in paralysis studies, as they share similar structure and functions with humans. Image: Pexels


Spinal cord stimulation

Electrical stimulation of the spinal cord could also provide a big breakthrough, says Chet Moritz, Co-Director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington, US.

‘We’re seeing some really impressive results with spinal cord stimulation where people with complete paralysis, who have been unable to function, have regained control of their limbs. We didn’t expect this. It’s the most exciting thing we’ve seen in the last 20 years,’ he says.

Last year, a team led by Grégoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology inserted an implant in the brains of paralysed monkeys and another over the spinal cord below the injury. The brain-spine interface worked by capturing leg-moving brain signals, decoded by a computer and sent – bypassing the damaged region – to the second implant, which delivered the signals as electrical impulses to the nerves, causing the leg to move.

Grégoire Courtine talks about his pioneering work on paralysis using electrical stimulation. Video: TED

Within six days, the monkeys had regained the use of their lower limbs and improved even more over time. The success of the experiment has led Courtine to launch a human trial of a spinal implant system.

We may be a long way still from restoring full function, as prior to paralysis, but Moritz is optimistic. Even a modest change, such as the movement of a single finger, can have a dramatic effect on quality of life and independence. ‘In five years, we’ve had dramatic improvement in function,’ he says. ‘It’s an exciting trajectory with tremendous potential.’  

Health & Wellbeing

In recent years, novel innovation in healthcare and pharmaceuticals have hit the headlines with increasing regularity. Each story promises a better quality of life for patients and a product that will ‘revolutionise’ healthcare as we know it. 

However, many of these innovations fail to materialise due to the complexity of the system. Problems with regulation, intellectual property agreements, and manufacturing are just some of the many issues that industry faces when integrating a new product into hospitals and treatment centres.

 Stephen Dorrell

Stephen Dorrell. Image: NHS Confederation@Flickr

So, do we need rethink our expectations of innovation? Speaking at New Scientist Live in September, Stephen Dorrell, Chair of NHS Confederation and a former Health Secretary, said that as an innate characteristic of humans, innovation will not stop. However, we should be more concerned about the difficulty of making good innovation available everywhere and rethinking what we consider the most efficient way of treating patients, he said.

As the most common type of dementia – affecting one in six over the age of 80 – Alzheimer’s disease needs good innovation. With no known cure, current efforts rely heavily on having a care plan once symptoms appear and medications can only slightly improve symptoms for a time as well as slow down the progression of the disease.


Progress in pharmaceuticals 

The Alzheimer’s research community are well versed in the known causes of the disease, with amyloid plaques and tau tangles the most widely accepted causes of the neurodegeneration that leads to Alzheimer’s. As a result, the majority of research and investment in the field is centred around this theory.

Neuro-Bio is a biotechnology start-up that is taking a different approach to making medicines for Alzheimer’s patients. The company is focused on a ‘previously unidentified mechanism’ of the disease that is linked to the development stages of the brain and cell death, and is working on new drug candidates that can stop the peptide involved in this mechanism from functioning improperly in adults.

After a series of setbacks in Alzheimer’s drug development, Prof Margaret Esiri, a neuropathologist at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Sciences, Oxford, said: ‘Neuro-Bio’s approach to the problem of Alzheimer’s disease is novel and scientifically well-founded. It is a good example of the new thinking that is urgently needed in this field’.


Timing it right 

However, with an uncertainty for future success in Alzheimer’s pharmaceuticals, researchers interested in the genetic make-up of neurodegenerative diseases are focusing on how early diagnosis can be beneficial to patients.

 brain matter

Alzheimer’s can cause a significant loss of brain matter (right) compared to a healthy brain (left). Image: National Institutes of Health

According to UCL geneticist John Hardy, a loss in brain matter and amyloid build-up begins 15 to 20 years before symptoms start to appear, highlighting the need for preventative measures. This need is not consistent with what is currently available to patients in the UK however, as to qualify for a clinical trial, patients must be in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s – often exhibiting severe symptoms that can, quite drastically, negatively affect quality of life for the individual.

Scientists at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, US, may have solved this issue of early diagnosis after developing a machine learning program that outperforms other methods for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. The program integrates known disease indicators and symptoms to predict the likelihood of Alzheimer’s onset. Multiple stage comparisons, which includes associated symptoms that are not always present in Alzheimer’s, allow the program to make a more accurate prediction of who is most vulnerable.

Development of such programs could help initiatives such as the 100,000 Genomes Project which aims to provide the NHS with a new genomic medicine service that can offer better diagnosis and more personalised treatments.  


 Baroness Susan Greenfield

Baroness Susan Greenfield. Image: National Assembly for Wales

Interested in Alzheimer’s disease?

SCI is running a Public Evening Lecture in London on Wednesday 28 February – The 21st Century mind: Blowing it, expanding it, losing itThe talk will be given by Baroness Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and CEO of Neuro-bio. It is free to attend, but spaces are limited. Don’t miss out – booking opening soon.

Sustainability & Environment

On average, 10% of all crop production is lost annually to drought and extreme heat, with the situation getting worse year on year. Heat stress happens over short-time periods, but drought happens over longer timescales and is linked to drier soils. Maize and wheat are especially hard hit, with yields falling by up to 50% if drought hits.

On the High Plains, the largest US wheat-growing region, drought is a possibility every season. ‘Drought stress can be a key concern, especially in dry lands, but even in irrigated areas we can’t expect the same levels of water in future and farmers face restrictions,’ says Chris Souder at Monsanto.  

So, this is not simply a developing world problem. Pedram Rowhani, University of Sussex, UK, found cereals in more technically developed agricultural systems of North America, Europe, and Australia suffered most from droughts. Yield losses due to drought were 19.9% in the US compared to almost no effect in Latin America.

Crop breeders in the past paid a great deal of attention to yield, but not enough to resilience to extreme events such as drought, Rowhani says, but this is changing. Growers increasingly want built-in drought resilience and plant scientists are looking for novel solutions. New, unconventional approaches based on novel insights from basic science might be necessary.


Plant strategies

Hundreds of genes and proteins are involved in the complex trait of drought resistance. Plants avoid drought stress by shortening their life cycle with accelerated flowering, or cut down water loss by closing leaf pores called stomata. One approach by breeders is to target specific traits by crossing individual plants that perform best under drought conditions.

 Stomata

Stomata are found of the underside of leaves and are used for gas exchange. Image: Pixabay

‘About 97% of plant water loss occurs through the stomata. If you want to regulate the amount of water a plant uses, regulate the stomata,’ says Julie Gray, University of Sheffield, UK. Gray has been genetically tweaking wheat, barley, and rice plants so they have fewer of these pores.

She believes rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere means that they do not suffer from less carbon dioxide from opening their stomata. ‘CO2 levels have gone up 40% over the last 200 years. It’s quite possible they are producing more stomata than they need,’ says Gray.

 Power plant in Tihange

Power plant in Tihange, Belgium. CO2emissions continue to increase. Image: Hullie@Wikimedia Commons   

Gray reports that plants grown at 450ppm CO2 with reduced stomatal density, but increased stomatal size, had larger biomass and increased growth tolerance when water was limited. ‘Plants can operate with perhaps half as many stomata before you see significant effects on photosynthesis, so you can definitely reduce water loss this way,’ says Gray.


Root of the issue

At the other end of the plant plumbing system are roots. Susannah Tringe, Joint Genome Institute, UK, is seeking microbes that can gift stress-tolerance to their plant hosts. ‘The microbes associated with plants are likely to be just as important for plant growth and health as the microbiome of humans,’ says Tringe.

Though a lot of work has focused on finding the ‘magic microbe,’ Tringe believes whole communities will be necessary in real field conditions, whereas a single strain could be out-muscled by competitors. 

Regular bouts of drought are leading to famine in developing countries. Video: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 

Sugar and drought

‘Drought is probably the most widespread abiotic stress that limits food production worldwide. There is always need to improve drought tolerance,’ says Matthew Paul, Rothamsted Research Institute, UK.

‘Sucrose is produced in photosynthesis,’ Paul explains. ‘During drought conditions, plants will withhold sucrose from the grain, as a survival mechanism’. This can terminate reproductive structures and abort seed formation, even if drought is short-lived, greatly compromising yield.

 A plant scientist studying rice plants

A plant scientist studying rice plants. Image: IRRI Photos@Flickr

Rothamsted researchers have looked at modifying plants so sugar keeps flowing. ‘If you can get more sugar going to where you want it […] then this could improve yields and yield resilience,’ enthuses Paul. Field studies show that GM maize improved yields from 31 to 123% under severe drought, when compared with non-transgenic maize plants.

Science & Innovation

 Concrete

Concrete is a common fixture in the building blocks of everyday life. Image: US Navy@Wikimedia Commons

Concrete is the most widely used construction material in the world, with use dating back to Ancient Egypt. 

Predictably, our needs concerning construction and the environment have changed since then, but the abundance of concrete and its uses have not. We still use concrete to build infrastructure, but building standards have changed dramatically.

 Dubai city landscape