Defending bees, new antibiotics and a fixation on nitrogen.

In defence of bees 

I was dismayed to read the opinion article by Mark Peplow on the subject of bees and colony collapse disorder. The majority of expert scientists and decision makers say that some neonicotinoid pesticides are killing bee colonies. The opponents of this view are the manufacturers of seeds treated with these pesticides, the farmers who use them and some government agriculture ministries. 

The article reads like similar articles by climate change sceptics who argue that there isn’t enough evidence to control CO2 emissions and their plea for more studies before limits are placed on the burning of fossil fuels. 

There is enough evidence of the effect of neonicotinoids on bees to merit the ban. If policy makers follow Peplow’s advice we may be left with a world without bees. Thankfully, the EU has implemented the ban so we will be having a field trial, of sorts, but not the one that he proposes.

M Marriott CChem FRSC

Warrington, UK

I was surprised by the uncritical coverage of the neonicotinoids issue in the articles ‘Neonicotinoids down but not out’ and ‘The pesticide buzz’. 

Use of neonicotinoids has increased dramatically over the past few years, coinciding with a dramatic reduction in the health of bee colonies in the UK. Several studies pointing to the dangers of neonicotinoids to bees have been published in leading scientific journals, as cited by the articles on these pages. Despite this, the UK government has resisted attempts by the EU to ban neonicotinoids. It cites its own (self-published) ‘scientific’ work that raises doubts over the published studies. Owen Paterson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) who refused to impose a ban, hides behind the government’s chief scientific adviser, Mark Walport, who in turn appears to make political judgements instead of giving advice on the science (as is clear from his article in the Financial Times on 26 April). The opinion piece by Mark Peplow seeks to defend the indefensible, that the entire UK becomes a field study with one of our most important pollinating insect species at stake. 

The chief scientific adviser should be a bastion of scientific impartiality within the UK government, representing science. Anything less damages the image of science and endangers the benefits of science to society. A learned society like the RSC should stand up for science. In this sense, the news coverage on the issue in Chemistry World did not make up for the biased opinion piece. 

Now that a two-year ban has been introduced, let’s hope that farmers are paid a fair price for their produce. Finally, what is not mentioned in the debate is that there is an alternative to pesticides: permaculture.

M de Vries MRSC

Edinburgh, UK

Time for new antibiotics

Ned Stafford’s article ‘Resistance “time bomb”’ was, of course, timely, given the recent publication by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) regarding the upgraded status of bacterial drug resistance. While it is incumbent on the pharmaceutical industry to find answers to this problem, much of the effort suggested, both in Stafford’s article and in the CMO’s annual report may be doomed to failure. 

It is surely imperative, especially in such fiscally-straitened times, that the drug discovery process is given the optimum chance to succeed. The identification of new targets is very important and yet the process itself remains aimed at the production of single mode-of-action molecules, which suffer rapid resistance evolution.

As a simple example, consider one of the original antibiotics, penicillin G, and a far more modern anti-infective, ertapenem. Despite the undoubtedly enormous development costs of the latter, both drugs are b-lactams and both are inactivated by b-lactamases. Indeed, extended-spectrum b-lactamases constitute a considerable part of the problem due to Gram-negative infection mentioned in the CMO’s report.

Surely we should be searching for molecules with activity profiles which are multi-factorial? Photoantimicrobials offer this activity and do not give rise to resistant strains of bacteria in passaging experiments. This is not to suggest that photoantimicrobials can be a direct blanket replacement for conventional agents, but this type of activity might be used as a template for more ‘pharma-acceptable’ agents. Clearly, a greater use of topical and local approaches, where applicable (and whether photoantimicrobial or not) makes sense from the resistance development angle.

‘Antibiotic stewardship’ is a term commonly used in connection with the proposed way forward. While this is an excellent idea in terms of antibacterial drug conservation, it does not negate the problem of drug resistance. New agents and approaches are also required.

M Wainwright CChem FRSC

Liverpool John Moores University, UK

Deriving the wave

In his recent article Philip Ball notes a new derivation of the Schrödinger equation. Readers may be interested to note that this is far from new. 

In the book Fundamental formulas of physics (ed. D H Menzel, 1960, Dover) Henry Zatzkis shows how by employing the Hamilton–Jacobi equation, and by assuming the phase change of a ‘Hamiltonian wave’ is a discrete quantum of action per period, the Schrödinger equation is derived. 

Readers interested in getting a better understanding of the hydrogen wave function could gain from the semi-classical description given by Ralph Schiller, which is essentially the quantised Hamilton–Jacobi formulation. No leaps of faith needed. 

As a further comment, quantum mechanics, in my opinion, is easier to understand if you get rid of that symbol ? . Thus had Bohr not put mvr = n? and instead said mv(2pr) = nh, then he would have seen that it was action, not angular momentum, that was quantised. Of course at this stage he still would have been wrong, unless he did what Schiller did, but less wrong.

Ian Miller MRSC

Lower Hutt, New Zealand

Air fixed 

Felix Tuczek’s claim that ‘Every single atom of nitrogen in your body has either gone through the Haber–Bosch process, or through biological nitrogen fixation’ is misleading. While there may be a statistical likelihood of such an atom having passed, at some time, through these processes, they are not the only nitrogen fixation processes by any means. 

Thunderstorms have been raging continuously across the planet since not long after the water vapour condensed 4.4 billion years ago, the lightning has fused nitrogen and oxygen together to produce nitrogen oxides (NOx) in immense quantities, most of which will have ended up in the sea, and still does so today. The resulting nitrates are the main source of nitrogen in the proteins of algae and phytoplankton and so on up the food chain to us when we eat sea fish.

Bush fires also produce NOx that is eventually washed into the ground by rain. So far, so natural, but a walk down the high street these days involves inhaling noticeable quantities of NOx from the exhaust pipes of motor vehicles, and my bet is that a lot of man’s activities involving high temperatures also produce NOx. I would be interested to read other chemists’ descriptions of these.

Colin Cook CChem MRSC

Basildon, UK

Illuminating OLEDs

We all enjoy a good story. However, far from querying the need to patent their light emitting polymers, as Donal Bradley is quoted as saying in the recent excellent article on organic light emitting diodes, I encouraged them to do just that in a letter I wrote to Richard Friend, following his phone call telling me about their findings. The University of Cambridge supported the work enthusiastically and subsequently acted as a business angel and made a direct investment into Cambridge Display Technology

It is worth noting that the first patent filed in April 1989 has now expired but the full potential of this exciting technology has not yet been fully realised. This is a clear demonstration of the time needed to turn the results of important fundamental research into commercial reality and to achieve economic impact.

R Jennings MRSC

Cambridge, UK

Earn and learn

It was with some interest that I read James Mitchell Crow’s article ‘Degrees of difference’, having entered chemistry by that route myself in 1955.

The second world war decimated the universities, and when I left school in 1948 it was almost impossible to get a university place. I found a job in the control lab of a Courtaulds factory with one day a week release for study, plus two evenings. In effect, an apprenticeship.

It was tough. We took physics and maths, one ancillary subject (mine was metallurgy), were coached in German and French for which we had to demonstrate efficiency in technical translation, and of course learned chemistry both practical and theoretical. My work experience included water treatment analyses, product testing, pilot plant operation and two years of process control shift work. However, like Emma Brown, I still had a life and even managed to play rugby for two or three years. I was allowed to defer my military service so long as I passed the exams, which constituted what some would call negative reinforcement, and in 1955 I took, and failed, the examinations for Associateship of the Royal Institute of Chemistry. I was granted leave to try once more, which I did and passed, and I found myself, a professional chemist, doing one-man-risk work disarming high explosive weaponry in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. 

Upon return to Courtaulds after two years of National Service I was assigned to the chemical engineering research lab working on the adsorption and desorption of carbon disulfide on an activated carbon fluidised bed, which was being plagued by problems of trace sulfur poisoning. This I managed to solve with a hydrogen stripping stage. I had, as Linda Millet says, ‘hit the ground running’.

Emma Brown will still probably have to cope, as I did, with ‘the stigma associated with apprenticeships’. But chemistry has challenged me, given me pleasure, provided me with a fascinating career and with opportunities to work in unexpected places with interesting people of all persuasions. What more could I ask? 

Demanding as it may be, a science apprenticeship adds a dimension to professional training that is simply not available at a university.

Derrick Hill CChem MRSC

British Columbia, Canada

Another case of arsenic

Concern about arsenic levels in beer is not new. In the summer of 1900 there was an alarming increase in hospital admissions of patients suffering from paralysis. Usually these were males and heavy drinkers. They were initially diagnosed as suffering from ‘alcoholic neuritis’. However, a Manchester workhouse physician, Ernest Reynolds, noticed that the victims were almost invariably afflicted with a skin condition resembling shingles. He recalled that this could be a symptom of arsenic poisoning and tested the beer favoured by some of his patients. The samples were found to contain significant quantities of the element.

For many years, sulfuric acid had been used by brewers to hydrolyse starch from various sources to manufacture ‘brewing sugar’. The sulfur source for the acid was iron pyrites (FeS2), an ore rich in arsenic and this element was a common contaminant in the acid. This was known at the time, so if the acid was to be used for culinary and similar purposes then it was very carefully purified. For some reason, from March 1900 Nicholson and Son of Leeds was supplying a cruder acid, rich in arsenic. Of course, once the cause was established, the trade reverted to the use of the pure acid and the outbreak subsided. 

A Royal commission was set up under the chairmanship of Lord Kelvin. It reported that as many as 6,000 drinkers had suffered from arsenic poisoning, and tragically there had been at least 70 deaths.

A Dronsfield FRSC

Alfreton, UK