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Science News

25 Posts authored by: Katie Cottingham

The nerve gas sarin was released on several subway lines in Tokyo in 1995 in a terrorist attack. Thirteen people died, and many more had severe injuries. But while such an incident is going on, how do you determine what’s happening and what might be in the air?


SensorCrop.jpgSomeday, first responders might come onto the scene and, after evacuating everyone, release a bunch of beetles with tiny, thin sensors on them into the subway stations. As the beetles make their way into the stations, the sensors would wirelessly report back whether sarin gas or some other agent is present.


That’s what Jang-Ung Park and colleagues envision. They are developing futuristic thin, flexible electronic devices that could attach onto leaves, insects, clothes or human skin to monitor environmental conditions or even someone’s health status.


The researchers, who are at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and Korea Electrotechnology Research Institute, report in ACS’ journal Nano Letters that they’ve come up with a simple, inexpensive way to make the sensors.


They are using carbon-based materials — graphite and carbon nanotubes — instead of silicon, which is traditionally used to make electronic circuits.


“The fabrication and processing can be much cheaper with our sensors because the entire device can be chemically synthesized in a single step, and carbon is also much less expensive than silicon,” says Park.


Sensor2.jpgSilicon-based electronics are brittle and rigid, but the carbon-based sensors that Park’s team is making are flexible. The sensors can even bend around a thin optical fiber without breaking. They also can stick to living things, like skin, bugs and plants, without adding an adhesive.


They tested their sensors by putting them onto the leaf of a “lucky bamboo” plant and onto the backs of “stag beetles.” The sensors performed well, detecting DMMP, which is similar to sarin, within seconds. 


The authors acknowledge funding from the Basic Science Research Program of the National Research Foundation of Korea, IT R&D Program, Materials Original Technology Program and Technology Innovation Program.



What do you think? Is this feasible? What other applications can you think of for these sensors, aside from detecting harmful gases?



“In-situ Synthesis of Carbon Nanotube–Graphite Electronic Devices and Their Integrations onto Surfaces of Live Plants and Insects”


Click here for the abstract.


*Journalists can request a PDF of the journal article by emailing


Credit for both images: American Chemical Society

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Warmer temperatures are finally upon us here on the East Coast, prompting many of us to get outside into the sunlight and play. To Bruce Parkinson and colleagues at the University of Wyoming, the sun is more than just a welcome sight after a long winter. It could someday provide a real, sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.


The finite supplies of fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, are being depleted. And burning them produces the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Alternative ways to generate energy haven’t really caught on yet, though. They can be costly, and in their current forms, they can’t make enough energy to replace even a fraction of the fossil fuels. Many researchers are working on improving solar panels, but even though their efficiencies have improved and their costs have decreased, they can’t produce power when the sun goes down.


Enter Parkinson’s team. They and others are placing their bets on a different way of harvesting and storing energy from the sun. They are working on devices that “split” water (H2O) to get hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). The hydrogen would be used as fuel, which can be stored and used at night when it’s dark, as well as for powering cars and trucks. To make the dream a reality, the materials in the device must be efficient, inexpensive, earth-abundant and stable for years. But what materials would work?


Parkinson had a thought — a metal oxide semiconductor would fit the bill as a photocatalyst in such a device, especially if the semiconductor were made of a few different metals. But with about 60 metals in the periodic table, the number of combinations he’d have to test was mind-boggling.


After his grad student Mike Woodhouse put together an initial ink-jet printer-based protocol to produce and analyze various metal combinations, Parkinson realized that he had a lot of work ahead of him. He remembers thinking that he’d either have to start a company, hire a bunch of engineers to automate the process or outsource the problem. Because the idea seemed simple, outsourcing seemed like the best option.


And that’s how the SHArK (Solar Hydrogen Activity Research Kit) project started in 2006. The kits include materials, such as an apparatus based on a Lego Mindstorm® kit, an electrochemical cell, a green laser pointer, an electronics box and fluorine-doped tin oxide plates. The students use the kits to prepare metal oxide films and test them for water-splitting activity.


“We started with undergrads, but enthusiastic high school teachers have taken it to high schools for AP Chemistry classes and science projects,” says Parkinson. He and colleagues have now sent more than 70 kits to high school and undergraduate students around the world.


In a recent issue of ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, Parkinson’s team reports that an undergrad named Thanh D. Do, then at Gonzaga University, happened upon a potential winning combination — a semiconducting p-type oxide containing iron, aluminum and chromium. Do is also a co-author on the paper. John Rowley, a postdoc in the Parkinson lab, using more sophisticated research tools, followed up on his discovery and found that it has many promising properties, such as a high photovoltage. Parkinson says his team and other researchers will continue to improve the material to enhance the photocurrent response.


The SHArK project was initially funded by the Dreyfus Foundation and is now funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the “Powering the Planet” Center for Chemical Innovation.


What do you think of the project? Would you have volunteered to help when you were a student? Are you interested in helping?


“Combinatorial Discovery though a Distributed Outreach Program: Investigation of the Photoelectrolysis Activity of p-Type Fe, Cr, Al Oxides” [Free Editors' Choice link]


Credit: Bruce Parkinson


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Bugs are a big problem. They spread diseases, and people also can develop allergies to them. And, of course, they’re icky.


They often are a really huge problem in densely populated, urban, low-income public housing dwellings, where there’s lots of food, clutter, moisture build-up, and cracks and crevices for bugs to crawl through and hide.


Families in Boston public housing developments, for instance, rank pest infestation, pesticide use and pest allergies second only to crime as matters of concern.


According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the world spends about $40 billion a year on pesticides to get rid of the creepy-crawlies. But is this really the answer? Some pesticides contain substances that can be harmful to humans at high levels, not just bugs.


Chensheng Lu and colleagues wondered about that. So they studied exposure to 19 pesticides among children in 20 families in Boston’s public housing. They wanted to see whether these children might be exposed to large amounts of pesticides in their everyday lives.


They found pesticides in all of the homes, along with indications — such as sighting of live pests or pest debris — that traditional pesticides were not effective. “The results from the current study, as well as other recent studies, conducted in low-income public housing, child care centers and randomly selected homes in the U.S. should accentuate the need for alternative pest management programs,” the report states.


So called “integrated pest management” (IPM) measures include less reliance on pesticides and more emphasis on neatness and blocking cracks where insects can enter. It also focuses on minimizing bugs’ access to food and water.


What do you think? Could IPM methods really replace pesticides?



“Household Pesticide Contamination from Indoor Pest Control Applications in Urban Low-Income Public Housing Dwellings: A Community-Based Participatory Research”




*Journalists can request a PDF of the journal article by emailing



Credit: Hemera/Thinkstock


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Before I rammed my knee into the sharp edge of my desk a few weeks ago, I hadn’t had a scab in years — decades, even. Scabs are unsightly, but they are really important in protecting an open wound against infection, and they stop the wound from bleeding. They also recruit new cells that help it heal quickly.


Ordinary bandages that you can buy at the grocery store are just barriers, keeping out dirt and microbes, while also stopping the blood from getting on your clothes. Sure, they sometimes have antibiotics on the white cotton pad, but they don’t really make the wound heal faster or attract new cells from the body to do so.


Now, researchers have built a better material for wound dressing that does just that. Shutao Wang and colleagues used human scabs as inspiration to make this material.


I bet this new dressing doesn’t have superheroes on it, as some bandages on the market do, but it does have a rather interesting texture. Their “cytophilic” wound dressing mimics the underside of scabs, where tiny fibers are arranged in the same direction like velvet or a cat’s fur. To make it, the team spun fibers of polyurethane — the common durable and flexible plastic — into the same pattern.


In laboratory experiments, the human cells involved in healing quickly attached to the material and lined up like those in actual scabs. The scientists conclude that this membrane “is of great potential in fabricating dressing materials for rapid wound healing, as well as other biomaterials, such as membrane for capturing circulating tumor cells, bone growth and constructing neural networks.”


Will we soon see this dressing on supermarket shelves? Do we need a new type of bandage? What do you think of this new material?

“Scab-Inspired Cytophilic Membrane of Anisotropic Nanofibers for Rapid Wound Healing”



*Journalists can request a PDF of the journal article by emailing



Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock 


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For many types of surgery or for a bad cut on the skin, stitches are just fine. They bring the tissues together and speed up the healing process. But for some types of surgeries, you really need something better—something that will form a leak-proof, tight seal.


This is especially important for intestinal surgeries. The intestines are where your food goes after the stomach. The small intestine is about 20 feet long, and most of your digestion happens here. It also absorbs lots of nutrients. The left-over stuff that isn’t digested goes from the small intestine to the large intestine, a.k.a. the “colon” or “bowel.” A little more digestion and nutrientt absorption happens here, but mostly, wastes are packaged for later evacuation, if you will.


It’s not a pretty picture, but these body parts are necessary for extracting every last bit of goodness from our food.


It’s also not pretty, though, if there’s a tear and the stuff in the intestines leaks out. In fact, it can be very harmful. Leaks can cause extremely painful and life-threatening abdominal infections. Surgery is necessary to repair the damage, but regular stitches just don’t cut it.


That’s why surgeons perform “laser tissue welding” (LTW) in these types of cases. LTW is a surgical method for connecting and sealing blood vessels, cartilage in joints, the liver, the urinary tract and other tissues. It involves the use of laser light to heat tissue, causing changes that enable the sides of incisions to seal. LTW has advantages over sutures or staples, such as a shorter operation time and reduced scarring. However, it forms weak seals that can be a special problem in intestinal surgery.


In a recent issue of ACS Nano, researchers report that they’ve developed a new material that acts like a “solder” for LTW. It’s kind of like the metal-based solder that people use to seal together metal pieces.


This particular solder is called a plasmonic nanocomposite. It has tiny gold nanorods in it that are so small that that 100,000 could fit in the period at the end of this sentence. The gold nanorods are wrapped inside a material that makes it more elastic so it can move with the


They found that when the material was used as a light-activated solder for laser-welding cuts in pig intestines, it formed a strong, “liquid-tight” but elastic seal, preventing bacteria from leaking out. “Taken together, these plasmonic nanocomposites are exciting materials for laser-based tissue repair,” say the researchers. The researchers plan to investigate these materials in animals with intestinal injury.


“Laser Welding of Ruptured Intestinal Tissue Using Plasmonic Polypeptide Nanocomposite Solders”



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Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock 


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Ah, nothing like heading out to the beach in the summer. The warm sun on your skin, the hot sand between your toes, the waves crashing around you.


Unfortunately, the water isn’t always as pristine as it seems at first glance. Sewage overflow from nearby treatment plants can contaminate oceans and lakes. And some swimmers aren’t as clean or as courteous regarding their bodily functions as you’d like them to be. <Ahem.> But humans aren’t the only ones at fault. We also share beaches with wildlife, waterfowl and pets whose wastes can dirty our waters.


It’s a serious issue. Fecal material harbors bacteria, such as the dangerous E. coli bacteria, which can cause diarrhea, and even death in immune-compromised, elderly or very young people. That’s why state and local officials test the water at public beaches. They want to make sure that no one gets sick after going for a swim.


The problem is that current tests take too long. They involve taking water samples and putting them on culture dishes to see if bacteria grow. That can take a day or two. So, today’s result is really an indication of the water quality yesterday or even a couple of days ago. Thus, managers might close a beach based on fecal contamination that existed in the past, but that poses no current threat. Likewise, they might keep a contaminated beach open because the water was clean in the past.


Now, researchers report in Environmental Science & Technology that they’ve compared various methods and found that one particular water-quality test could be ideal. Developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the test’s fast results could help managers across the country make better decisions about their beaches. It could prevent unnecessary beach closures and unnecessary illnesses by providing accurate, same-day results of bacteria levels.


What do you think? Have you ever gotten sick after swimming in a lake or ocean? How would you build a water-quality test?


“Choices in Recreational Water Quality Monitoring: New Opportunities and Health Risk Trade-Offs”



*Journalists can request a PDF of the journal article by emailing






Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock 


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The typical human brain weighs less than 3 pounds, is pinkish-beige in color and has the consistency of gelatin. It’s a crinkly thing, with lots of folds on its surface. Not that impressive. It’s actually kind of yucky-looking, come to think of it, and it’s very fragile. Yet, this is the human command center — where all of the thoughts, emotions and memories take shape.


What’s going on in there? Well, we now know that there are about 80 billion nerve cells, or neurons, sending signals to each other in the brain, forming 100 trillion different connections. Pretty complex stuff.


But to dig deeper, scientists need new tools. That’s where the new BRAIN initiative comes in to play.


President Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN, for short) in early April. Sometimes compared to the Human Genome Project in its scope and potential impact on medicine, BRAIN would enlist teams of scientists to develop the technology for an unprecedented new understanding of how the brain works. It could establish the basis for new treatments for clinical depression, autism, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and other brain conditions.


In a recent article in ACS Nano, three journal editors, A. Paul Alivisatos, Anne M. Andrews and Paul S. Weiss, combine with Sotiris Masmanidis, Axel Scherer, Rafael Yuste, and several prominent nanoscientists and neuroscientists to explain how advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology over the last decade are poised to develop the tools required for greater understanding of the brain at this important scale.


Since the parts of the brain work at the nanoscale, such tools are ideally suited for probing the pieces, but must ultimately be put together to better understand thought, perception, consciousness, and health and disease. “We hope that [BRAIN] will bring the last decade’s national and international investments in science, technology, and people in nanoscience and nanotechnology to bear on important and challenging problems in brain science,” the scientists and engineers say.


What do you think? Is BRAIN’s goal achievable? Can we really know how the brain works? Or do we just need the right tools? What are some challenges facing BRAIN researchers? How can they overcome them?



“Nanotools for Neuroscience and Brain Activity Mapping,” ACS Nano




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You never know what you’re going to find when you go digging. In 1974, a group of farmers digging a well stunned the world with their discovery of the now-famous Terracotta Warriors and Horses in China.


They unearthed over 8,000 soldiers and their associated chariots and horses, all made of terracotta, a type of earthenware. They also found other figures, such as terracotta musicians and acrobats.


All of these life-sized figures were made around 200 B.C. and buried underground with the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, to protect him after death.


Under all that dirt, these masterpieces were safe and protected. But now that they are exposed for all to see, they also are exposed to pollution and other environmental factors that are deteriorating them. You can’t easily move 8,000 life-sized figures to a safe locale, so researchers have studied how to preserve them where they were found.


ZhaoLin Gu and colleagues say in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology that this problem isn’t unique to the Terracotta Warriors. This is also a concern in other museums that display large artifacts in huge open spaces. To give you an idea of the type of space we’re talking about, the Qin museum covers an area of more than 17,500 square yards, almost three football fields.


The study recommends new measures to better preserve such artifacts. One, for instance, involves the use of an “air curtain” that would blow across the space to separate the figurines in the Qin Museum from the outside environment. The air curtains would keep pollutants and heat away from the inside of the pits in which the figures stand. A layer of cool air would also be used in the bottom of the pits to help form a blanket of stagnant air around the relics for protection from the environment. 


What do you think? Will this protect the figures? What other measures would you recommend?



“Primitive Environment Control for Preservation of Pit Relics in Archeology Museums of China,” Environmental Science & Technology



*Journalists can request a PDF of the journal article by emailing



Credit: American Chemical Society 


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Plants are amazing chemical factories. They take sunlight and use it and carbon dioxide to make energy for themselves. They also make oxygen, which we breathe. But they also make substances that can help heal us. Traditional Chinese medicine, for instance, makes use of herbs that are thought to have healing properties. And some drug companies use plant substances to make medicines — the breast cancer drug tamoxifen comes from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree.


Now comes word that plants could be even more useful. Researchers are reporting an advance in re-engineering photosynthesis to transform plants into solar-driven “bio-factories.” The result? The plants end up making ingredients, not only for medicines, but also for fabrics, fuels and other products, when exposed to sunlight.


Poul Erik Jensen and colleagues point out that photosynthesis does more than generate oxygen and energy. It also produces a wealth of natural chemical compounds, many of which have potential uses in medicines and other commercial products. However, evolution has cordoned off those functions into separate areas of the plant’s cells. Chloroplasts, the packets of chlorophyll that make plants green, generate the energy, sugar and oxygen. Another structure, the “endoplasmic reticulum,” produces a wide range of natural chemicals.


Their report describes how they moved an entire metabolic pathway needed to make natural bioactive chemicals to the chloroplast. “This opens the avenue for light-driven synthesis of a vast array of other natural chemicals in the chloroplast,” they say. In a nutshell, they could make cool compounds by just shining light on some cells.


What do you think? Could this have a real impact on how we make many chemicals? Do you think this could be scaled-up easily? What are some challenges that this research could face?



“Redirecting Photosynthetic Reducing Power toward Bioactive Natural Product Synthesis,” ACS Synthetic Biology



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Jute, that scratchy, stiff vegetable fiber used to make burlap sacks and twine, could have a brand-new use in the near future. According to a study in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, it could serve as a sustainable strengthener for concrete and mortar.


Surprisingly, jute is the second most-widely used fiber after cotton. It’s part wood and part textile. India, China and Bangladesh grow the most jute. In fact, it’s even been dubbed the “Golden Fiber of Bangladesh.” And it is easy to grow — it just needs lots of water.


Concrete can crack over time, so researchers have been developing fibers to reinforce the cement compositions used to make concrete and mortar, which are some of the most popular building materials. And a stronger concrete won’t crack as much. A lot of people are now interested in using economical, sustainable natural fibers instead of those made from steel or synthetics.


In previous research, Subhasish Majumder and colleagues showed that jute works as a reinforcement fiber.


Their new study discovered another advantage of jute — it also delays the hardening of concrete and mortar, which must be trucked to construction sites.


“The prolonged setting of these fiber-reinforced cement composites would be beneficial for applications where the pre-mixed cement aggregates are required to be transported from a distant place to construction site,” the report states.


“Effect of Jute as Fiber Reinforcement Controlling the Hydration Characteristics of Cement Matrix,” Industrial & Engineering Chemistry




Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock



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Aside from some molds growing on “stinky” cheeses, molds are generally not good for human consumption. For example, we all know to stay away from bread with tell-tale green spots or white cottony threads on the slices. And we need to take special measures when black spots of mold appear on damp walls.


Mold can produce poisons called mycotoxins. These toxins can wind up in food either directly because a fungus grew on an ear of corn that a person eats, for example, or indirectly because a cow ate that infected ear of corn, and a person ate a steak from that cow. Mycotoxins also can cause problems if they are released into the air. Farmers can develop “farmers’ lung,” which shows up as flu-like symptoms, from such exposure.


Governments already put limits on the amounts of mold toxins in grain crops. But researchers now say in the ACS journal Chemical Research in Toxicology that these regulations should be expanded to include so-called “masked mycotoxins.” These versions change from harmless to potentially harmful forms once they are in the body.


In the report, Chiara Dall’Asta and colleagues explain some health experts regard mycotoxins as the most serious chronic dietary risk factor, greater than the potential health threats from pesticides and insecticides.


Plants protect themselves by binding or “conjugating” glucose, sulfur or other substances to a mycotoxin, producing conjugated mycotoxins that are not harmful to them. These are called “masked mycotoxins” because they are masked or hidden by that bound substance.


Dall’Asta explains that these masked mycotoxins are not included in current safety regulations because no one was really sure what happened when people and animals ate them.


The new study focused on two of the most widespread mycotoxin contaminants of grain crops — deoxynivalenol (DON) and zearalenone (ZEN). The authors say their results show, for the first time, that bacteria present in the large intestine in people deconjugate or “unmask” DON and ZEN, releasing the original toxic forms. “For this reason, masked mycotoxins should be considered when evaluating population exposure," the study concludes.


“Masked Mycotoxins Are Efficiently Hydrolyzed by Human Colonic Microbiota Releasing Their Aglycones,” Chemical Research in Toxicology



Credit: Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock


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We’ve all heard how coffee is good for you. Recent studies have linked drinking coffee with a lower risk for developing many conditions, including type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. It also has more healthful antioxidants than vegetables or fruit combined.


But surprisingly, a lot of antioxidants remain in the gunk in the filter when you brew that cup of joe, say researchers.

Of course, people around the world drink millions of cups of coffee every day. That generates an estimated 20 million tons of used grounds annually. Some spent coffee grounds are actually used commercially as farm fertilizer or in homes as plant food or insect repellant. But most used grounds end up in the trash.

Maria-Paz de Peña's team knew that coffee contained lots of antioxidants, and they wondered how much of those healthful compounds remained in used grounds. Specifically, which coffee-making method would leave the most antioxidants in the grounds?

In their report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, they found that filter, plunger and espresso-type coffeemakers left more antioxidants in coffee grounds, while mocha coffeemakers left the least. Because filter and espresso coffeemakers are more common in homes and commercial kitchens, the authors report that most grounds are likely to be good sources of antioxidants and other useful substances. They note that after these compounds are extracted, the grounds can still be used for fertilizer.

“Evaluation of Spent Coffee Obtained from the Most Common Coffeemakers as a Source of Hydrophilic Bioactive Compounds,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry



Credit: American Chemical Society


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A substance in the sticky goo that mussels use to glom on to rocks and other surfaces could help ease tooth sensitivity. That’s welcome news to my ears — well, to my sensitive teeth!


Like 74 percent of the world’s population, I too have teeth that are sensitive to extremes in temperatures or to certain kinds of foods and drinks, like those that are sweet or acidic. Teeth hurt when the hard outer enamel layer and the softer underlying dentin wear away — it’s called demineralization. That makes it easier for things to stimulate the nerves that are inside the teeth. <Ouch!>


There are some sugar-free gums and special toothpastes on the market that can help reduce that tooth hyper-sensitivity. But none of these products can rebuild both the enamel and dentin simultaneously. And that’s what Quan-Li Li, Chun Hung Chu and colleagues wanted to do. But dentin and enamel break down and rebuild in different ways, complicating the issue.


To address this challenge, the researchers turned to a material in the adhesive that mussels use to stick to things. In that goo is a substance called polydopamine, which is already being investigated for use in many biomedical applications, such as drug delivery and biosensing.


In the paper, published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, they describe laboratory tests that involved bathing human teeth with worn-away enamel and dentin in liquid containing the sticky material and minerals. Teeth bathed in the sticky material and minerals reformed dentin and enamel. However, teeth bathed just in minerals reformed only enamel.


The gooey substance “may be a simple universal technique to induce enamel and dentin remineralization simultaneously,” they concluded.


“Polydopamine-Induced Tooth Remineralization,” ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces



Credit: Medioimages/Photodisc /Thinkstock


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Yes, whale vomit — although some experts suspect that this smelly, grayish, waxy intestinal secretion actually comes from the other end of the whale. It’s actually been known throughout the ages as an aphrodisiac, a medication and a food flavoring. But ambergris, as it’s called, is most famous in modern times as a rare fragrance ingredient that has a sweet and earthy scent. It also helps a perfume’s scent last longer on its wearer.


There’s a problem with ambergris, though. Sperm whales are the only source of the prized substance, but they are an endangered species. And that makes it illegal in some countries (like the U.S.) to buy or sell it. But lucky beachcombers in the right countries who find ambergris washed up on the shore can fetch thousands of dollars per pound of the stuff.


Most perfume makers now use ambergris substitutes. One is made from sclareol, which they get from the Clary sage plant. There’s a bit of a problem with sclareol, too — only small amounts of it are in the plant. It’s laborious to extract and purify enough of it for perfumes. That’s why the scientists looked for a better way of making large amounts of sclareol.


In a recent issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, scientists report a new, sustainable way to make sclareol. Their report describes isolating the genetic material (DNA) that produces the two Clary sage enzymes needed to make sclareol. They put the DNA into bacteria, which made large amounts of sclareol in bioreactors.


“Toward a Biosynthetic Route to Sclareol and Amber Odorants,” Journal of the American Chemical Society





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Scientists report that someday soon, celiac patients might not need to go down the special “gluten-free” aisle of the grocery store anymore. They are making progress toward a pill that could allow celiac patients to eat pastries, breads, cereals and other foods that contain the protein called gluten. (Kind of like the lactase pills that lactose-intolerant people can take so they can eat dairy products.)


About 2 million – 3 million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which gluten causes inflammation in the digestive tract. Gluten is in wheat, rye and barley products. The only treatment right now is going on a gluten-free diet, which means staying away from cereals, soups, cookies and breads that contain the protein.


Fortunately, many companies are making products, such as specialty breads, muffins, cookies and cakes that are gluten-free. And some companies are reminding consumers that not all cereals and bakery products contain gluten anyway — rice-, corn- and potato-based foods are still OK to eat.


Gluten-free products have gotten notoriety lately because several celebrities, such as Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, have dropped gluten from their diets in order to lose weight. However, giving up gluten won’t necessarily cause the pounds to melt away. In fact, some people say that they’ve gained weight on a gluten-free diet. That’s probably because many of these products have a lot more sugar or fat than their gluten-containing counterparts to make up for the missing protein and to make it taste better.


In a recent issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, a team of scientists describe their discovery of a naturally occurring enzyme that seemed like it would be able to break down gluten into such small pieces so that it wouldn’t cause problems for those with celiac disease. They changed some parts of the enzyme in the laboratory so that it would actually meet all the necessary criteria to allow patients to eat regular bakery items.


The new enzyme (called KumaMax) broke down more than 95 percent of a gluten peptide implicated in celiac disease in acidic conditions like those in the stomach. “These combined properties make the engineered [enzyme] a promising candidate as an oral therapeutic for celiac disease,” say the researchers.


“Computational Design of an α-Gliadin Peptidase,” Journal of the American Chemical Society





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