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David Bradley ISSUE #71
December 2007
Abraham Shanzer
Five Firsts in Chemistry

With 2007 rapidly coming to an end, the inevitable lists are popping up. Not wishing to be left out this holiday season, the American Chemical Society has compiled a Top 5 from its own publications. "Five Firsts of 2007" introduces advances in personal security, cardiovascular disease, environmental contamination, renewable energy, and genetic disease.

The first molecular keypad lock appeared in January in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, promising defense and intelligence agencies a way to safeguard top-secret data using a device the size of a single molecule? Abraham Shanzer and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, based their molecular keypad lock on molecules that fluoresce only in response to the correct sequences of three input signals. "By harnessing the principles of molecular Boolean logic, we have designed a molecular device that mimics the operation of an electronic keypad, a common security circuit used for numerous applications in which access to an object or data is to be restricted to a limited number of persons," the researchers said. "The development of a molecular-scale keypad lock is a particularly attractive goal as it represents a new approach to protecting information at the molecular scale."

Second "First" was a study aimed at finding more effective treatments for patients for whom aspirin simply doesn't work. Writing in the Journal of Proteome Research in July, researchers in Spain identified blood proteins involved in aspirin resistance, a condition that prevents thousands of patients from reaping aspirin's beneficial effects in protecting against cardiovascular disease.

Antonio Lopez-Farre, Carlos Macaya, and their colleagues at the Hospital Clinico San Carlos in Madrid, used the novel technique of two-dimensional electrophoresis to study changes in different proteins present in two groups of patients with coronary artery disease, the underlying cause of most heart attacks. One group of patients was aspirin-sensitive and the other had aspirin resistance. They found increased levels of three proteins involved in the binding of vitamin D in patients with aspirin resistance. "These results may aid future development of more effective therapies for aspirin-resistant patients," the researchers said.

Third up is an explosive discovery in tobacco plant genetic engineering in which a modified form of the plant might be used to decontaminate soil containing the explosive trinitrotoluene, TNT, a widely used military explosive. The research appeared in the August issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

According to Neil Bruce and colleagues at the University of York, toxic TNT contamination is a major environmental problem at many World War II sites, military training areas, and explosive manufacturing sites. The researchers inserted a gene for a TNT-transforming bacterial enzyme into a tobacco plant and found that the novel bacteria could metabolize the compound into a non-toxic, non-explosive form. "This is the first report to demonstrate that transgenic plants engineered for the phytoremediation of organic pollutants can increase the functional and genetic diversity of the bacterial community in acutely polluted soil compared to wild type plants," the researchers say in Environmental Science & Technology

The fourth "First" featured is research that allowed nanotechnologists in Colorado to "wire up" enzymes for producing hydrogen in fuel cells. Hydrogenase enzymes have been hailed as the saviors of the future hydrogen economy because they could act as catalysts for making hydrogen for direct feeding to fuel cells. Writing in Nano Letters, Michael Heben, Paul King, and colleagues at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, Colorado, have combined hydrogenases with electrically conducting carbon nanotubes to make "biohybrid" conjugate materials as components of a future hydrogen fuel cell technology.

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Fifth and final "First", scientists in California this year reported an advance toward rapid antenatal testing of Down syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities. In an October issue of Analytical Chemistry, Stephen Quake and Christina Fan of Stanford University point out that most existing pre-natal tests depend on the time-consuming method of karyotyping. Their new approach cuts the wait for anxious parents to be from two weeks to just two hours.

The new test is based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and allows DNA to be tested without the two-week cell culture step traditionally needed for karyotyping.