Readers highlight UK-based metalloenzyme research, ponder the plastics problem, and set a synthetic challenge

Not just US

We were delighted to see an article focused on metalloenzymes. It rightly highlighted some of the amazing work going on towards the structural and mechanistic characterisation of enzymes that employ metal-containing cofactors, work that has revealed, and will certainly continue to reveal, new types of chemistry.

What was less welcome for us was the heavy focus on examples of work from US-based chemists (biological and inorganic), with not a single mention of UK-based researchers. This was very disappointing given that there is a wonderful tradition of world-leading biological inorganic chemistry in the UK, and that the membership of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) is largely UK based.

As one example, lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs) constitute a family of copper enzymes that was highlighted in the article. Much of the groundbreaking work on LPMOs was undertaken in the labs of Paul Walton and Gideon Davies at University of York (and they were recently honoured for this work through the RSC’s Rita and John Cornforth Award). Such is the strength of the UK biological inorganic community that the UK hosted the most recent biennial European Biological Inorganic Chemistry conference, and with backing from the RSC was recently selected as the venue for the flagship International Conference on Biological Inorganic Chemistry in 2027.

Members of the Committee, Inorganic Biochemistry Discussion Group (IBDG), an Interest Group of the RSC

Affirmative action

Diversity is crucial to excellence in innovation and discovery for the good of humanity and fundamental knowledge; in the chemical sciences and beyond. Yet, data show that progress in equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) has proceeded at a glacial pace. This is in spite of the UK’s 1970s–1990s equality and antidiscrimination laws, and their broadening in 2010 under the Equality Act. Legislation intended to spur rapid progress in EDI in every sector and at every level of employ. Our community trajectory is not as it should be – the Equality Act and voluntary schemes such as Disability Confident are thus proven grossly underwhelming. What more is needed?

During the RSC’s online Inclusion and Diversity Forum in December a participant in a break-out session stated that affirmative action is not legal during hiring in the UK. Having worked in the US where affirmative action is generally a business-as-usual approach to staff recruitment and diversification my immediate response was ‘change the law’. Surely we should have the possibility to set firm policies and practices with target quotas so as to more rapidly uplift groups of people that are currently minoritised and marginalised.

I’m no legal eagle or trade union leader. Given Brexit and the ongoing work of the All-Party Parliamentary group on diversity and inclusion in Stem, is the UK reviewing its employment laws? Is now a prime time to speak out and insist on affirmative action for the betterment of society and science?

Amy Riches
University of Edinburgh, UK

A synthetic challenge

While a postdoc in 1964, I designed two cage ligands that would require a central metal atom to adopt respectively the less common six-coordinate trigonal prismatic and eight-coordinate cubic configurations.

During my academic career, I was unable to devise a successful synthetic route to either, though both are fully saturated and have a high degree of symmetry. Since my days in the lab many new synthetic methods and strategies have been developed, potentially making the preparation of these structures more accessible. If any readers are drawn to taking on a challenge, I will be happy to provide images of the structures as it would be satisfying to know that they had been prepared successfully and their chemistry explored.

Michael Sammes FRSC
Chippenham, UK

Plastic perplexity

I agree wholeheartedly with Alan Peacegood’s comments on the difficulties in identifying which plastics should go into a recycling bin. Around 15 years ago I put together an outreach activity to demonstrate the use of Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (one of my passions in life) to students. To reduce the hazards of the activity the materials I chose to analyse were ‘recyclable’ plastics. Students find out very quickly that recycling symbols are often difficult to find on the packaging and to make it more confusing they can be either letters or numbers.

The worrying aspect of researching this activity is I now recycle less than I used to! Much food packaging has a tray made of one polymer and a peel-off film made of another, thus one material contaminates the other when processed. Dyes used on and in plastics are great for the end consumer but significantly impact the value of any recycled material if it isn’t white or transparent. But the greatest tragedy is that only the PET that goes into my recycling bin gets recycled. The LDPE, HDPE and polypropylene gets mixed with paper and burnt as a fuel, while the polystyrene and PVC go to landfill! David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have highlighted the issues around the world’s plastic pollution disaster but consumer attitudes need to be radically different before change will occur.

Don Clark CSci CChem MRSC
Canterbury, UK

Ideal subjects

I am enjoying your diverse columnists in Chemistry World; they provide an interesting and informative view of chemical science every month. I particularly value Vanessa Seifert’s columns on philosophical aspects of chemistry and science. Her discussion of idealisations is fascinating  – I wish I had read it 50 years ago!

Part of the value, purpose or challenge of idealisations, is working out when they need to be re-examined and revised. That is one of the keys to picking good research topics. This is shown elsewhere in the same issue in the articles ‘How does a cell know what kind of cell it should be?’ and ‘New ordering of elements could help find materials with promising properties’.

David Bowen FRSC
Via email

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We apologise to Colin Waters of the University of Leicester for mistakenly calling him Colin Woods throughout ’Marking the Anthropocene’ (Chemistry World, Feb 2021, p24).

We also apologise to Sheila Rowan for incorrectly stating that she is at the University of Edinburgh (Chemistry World, Feb 2021, p6). Her correct affiliation is the University of Glasgow.