Short items

ERC chief named


Source: © ERC

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker

The first secretary general of the European Research Council (ERC) has been named as Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, current president of the German research foundation (DFG), Europe’s largest research funding agency. Winnacker, professor of biochemistry at the University of Munich, will lead the integrated operation of the ERC, due to be established as part of the European Community’s upcoming seventh research framework programme (FP7). The ERC will be the first pan-European funding agency for frontier research. 

Ionic liquids online 

An online database listing the physical properties of ionic liquids has been developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Nist) and the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (Iupac). There is fast growing interest in ionic liquids as good candidates for ’green solvents’ to replace hazardous, air-polluting organic solvents like acetone and benzene. Ionic liquids make virtually no vapour emissions at room temperature. A lack of organised, reliable data on the basic physical properties of ionic liquids prompted Nist, in cooperation with Iupac, to create an ionic liquids database they have called ILThermo.

Chemical labelling harmonised 

The European Commission has launched a two-month online consultation on a proposed regulation on the classification and labelling of chemicals, based on the United Nations Globally Harmonised System (GHS). UK negotiations are being led by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). ’We are keen to hear from those with an interest on how this proposal will affect the UK,’ said Robin Foster of the HSE’s International Chemicals Unit. ’This will then help shape the UK negotiating strategy.’ A website including a discussion forum, calendar of events and how stakeholders can get involved is available.  

Chemistry of photosynthesis rewarded


Sun shines on biochemist

Jim Barber, professor of biochemistry at Imperial College London, UK, has received the Wheland medal and award from the University of Chicago, US. The medal, awarded every two years, recognises international outstanding contributions to chemistry. Barber received the honour in acknowledgement of his 40 year career researching photosynthesis and the way plants use sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. 

Online access to centuries of pioneering science


The Royal Society has launched its complete journals archive, going back over 340 years, in electronic form. ’This will be a great resource for historians of science, and also very entertaining, especially with regard to the older and really influential papers,’ Charles Lusty, senior manager of publishing production and sales at the Royal Society, told Chemistry World. The archive, which includes landmark papers by Boyle, Priestley, Davy and Faraday, is freely available online until December. 

Chew on this


Source: © iStockphotos

Remove with soap and water

British polymer developers Revolymer, Bristol, UK, say they have hit a key technical milestone in their goal to develop chewing gum that can be ’removed easily from the streets if discarded irresponsibly’. Using the technology, tested in labs at the University of Bristol, Terence Cosgrove, professor of physical chemistry at the university and Revolymer’s chief scientific officer, said, ’We have managed to change the surface characteristics of the gum base which will allow a stream of water or a mild soap solution to break the adhesion between chewing gum residues and surfaces such as paving stones, furniture or hair.’ The next challenge is to take this base and add the required sweeteners and flavourings to make chewing gum that can be tested for its chewing characteristics as well as its removal. 

Iron chelator offers sunburn relief


Source: © iStockphotos

Lock up your iron

A sun cream that mops up sun-generated free iron in the skin could heal sunburn damage, claim UK chemists. A ’massive amount’ of free iron is released in skin cells that are exposed to high doses of sunlight, says Charareh Pourzand at the University of Bath. This free iron can catalyse the generation of more harmful free radicals that cause severe cell damage. Pourzand’s team added a chelator to sun cream that would bind and export iron.  

The trick was to find a chelator that could do this without exporting the iron needed for essential cellular processes, such as oxygen transport by red blood cells. The prototypes arrived at, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology  and currently in lab trials, comprise caged iron binding sites that release the chelators only in response to UV light.

Nobel predictions 

Mug’s game or not, Thomson Scientific has released its annual list of researchers most likely to contend for Nobel honours in October. Each year, data from the ISI Web of Knowledge, a database of scientific citations managed by Thomson, is used to determine the most influential researchers in the Nobel categories chemistry, economics, physiology or medicine, and physics. Last year, Thomson’s list included Robert Grubbs, who was indeed among the winners of the 2005 Chemistry Nobel prize. 

This year, Thomson lists five likely contenders for the 2006 prize, including Steven Ley, past president of the RSC and professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge, UK. However, 73 per cent of voters on an online poll hosted by Thomson predict the prize will go to another member of the list - Gerald Crabtree of Stanford University, California, US. Of 27 researchers shortlisted by Thomson since 2002, four have won Nobel prizes. 

WHO backs DDT

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that the insecticide DDT should be used to control malaria, reversing its stance of the last two decades. Indoor spraying for malaria control was phased out in the early 1980s due to growing concerns about the health and environmental impact of DDT (dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane). ’The scientific evidence clearly supports this reassessment,’ said Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO assistant director-general for HIV/Aids, TB and malaria. Used in combination with insecticide-treated mosquito nets, the WHO hopes that applying DDT on the walls and roofs of houses and animal shelters will help to control the spread of malaria-carrying mosquitos that cause more than a million deaths every year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Priestley medal for nanotech pioneer


Top ACS award for Whitesides

George Whitesides, professor of chemistry at Harvard University, US, is to be awarded the 2007 Priestley medal for a lifetime of achievement in chemistry. The award, the highest honour bestowed by the American Chemical Society, recognises a distinguished career spanning over 40 years. Whitesides has published over 900 papers and more than 50 patents (earning him a place, last year, among Thomson Scientific’s Nobel hopefuls). He is particularly noted for his work in self-assembly of molecules at surfaces, which laid the groundwork for advances in nanotechnology. He has also contributed to such diverse fields as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, materials science and microfluidics. 

Taxol pioneer loses battle, gains millions

Robert Holton, who made a fortune with his method to synthesise the anticancer blockbuster Taxol, has lost a battle to get his employers, Florida State University, to build a chemistry building to his specifications. In November 2005, Holton filed suit against FSU, demanding that the university construct a chemistry building he had agreed to fund through an $11 million (?6 million) gift. According to the ruling, the university will not have to follow Holton’s instructions, but will have to return the $11 million.  

Banking on the nation’s genes 

UK Biobank - the controversial multi-million pound study designed to relate health to the lifestyle, environment and genes of UK citizens - has been launched. The aim of the study is to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and a wide range of other serious illnesses. The success of a 3800-participant pilot project around Manchester means that, towards the end of this year, letters will be sent to men and women aged 40 to 69, who will be invited to attend one of a network of assessment centres across the UK. Organisers hope to recruit half a million people - nearly one per cent of the British population - over the next four years. Volunteers will join the project having answered a set of questions on health, lifestyle, memory, work and family, and supplied samples of blood and urine. For many years after this assessment visit, the health of every willing volunteer will be followed through medical and related records. 

Bacterial plastic producers 

The genome of a bacterium that makes biodegradable plastics has been reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology. The bacterium Ralstonia eutrophia  H16 stores energy as plastic-like molecules - polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) - just as animals accumulate fat reserves. Unlike other bugs, R. eutrophia  needs only hydrogen and carbon dioxide to survive. 

Protein boosts slimming hormone 

Circulating levels of a hunger fighting hormone called PYY (Chemistry World, August 2004, p6) can be increased by eating a higher-protein diet, report researchers in the journal Cell Metabolism. PYY hit the headlines in 2002 when it was shown to stave off hunger, but its promise as a dieting miracle has been questioned ever since. Nevertheless, the results of this latest study, by Rachel Batterham of University College London, UK, and colleagues, promote eating more protein as a potential weight-loss strategy. This is distinct from the Atkins diet, says Batterham, where high protein is associated with high saturated fat.