Saturday, May 30, 2009

sniffing out danger

I very nearly overlooked this, as the titles of the paper and the N&V piece didn't really catch my attention, but there is a new sense of smell reported in the current issue of Nature, which is specific for pathogens and cell damage, so it's for sniffing out danger. Gone are the days when we thought we had the "normal" nose for food and Jacobson's organ for sexual attraction. Things have turned out much more complicated and may still take a while to unravel.

Formyl peptide receptor-like proteins are a novel family of vomeronasal chemosensors p574
Two different G-protein-coupled receptor families are known to mediate pheromonal cues in the mammalian vomeronasal organ. Here, members of a third family of receptors, the formyl peptide receptor-related gene family (FPRs), are shown to be expressed in the vomeronasal epithelium, with those cells expressing FPRs responding to ligands associated with disease and inflammation. This raises the possibility that FPRs detect the health status of individuals.
Stéphane Rivière, Ludivine Challet, Daniela Fluegge, Marc Spehr & Ivan Rodriguez

Thursday, May 28, 2009

biofuels etc.

In the current issue of Chemistry & Industry (No. 10, page 30), there is my review of the book:

Biocatalysis and Bioenergy by Ching T. Hou and Jei-Fu Shaw, eds.
J.Wiley, 2008

which is essentially a volume of conference proceedings about biofuels and other biological resources.

Here's a snippet:

This monograph, emerging from a conference held in Taiwan in 2006, assembles reviews mainly on bioethanol, biodiesel, and other products made either with biocatalysts or from renewable resources. The latter comprise about half the length of the book, leaving a third of the space for diesel and just a sixth for bioethanol. In marked contrast to the public debates over biofuels, food, and climate change, these research reviews are very much from the grassroots of the field, giving even the smallest technical problems due attention.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

GM fall-out

The repercussions of Germany's ban on GM maize, anticipated in my news feature on GM across Europe, has made a short update piece necessary, which appeared in yesterday's issue of Current Biology:

Germany’s GM troubles
GM crops have become a focus of
controversy in Germany, as Monsanto
takes the country to court over
Current Biology 26 May, 2009
Volume 19, Issue 10, page R389

Monday, May 25, 2009

periodic bus service

One does expect buses to run periodically and to timetable, but only very few of them display a periodic table. So, after a long wait for the bus, and following up on the more frequently seen periodic taxi, here comes at last the periodic bus:

Friday, May 22, 2009

murder most foul

I just finished a short piece about the suspected murder case Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), which has a new suspect in the shape of the (distantly related) Swedish count Erik Brahe. (See, for example this article from January.) Intriguingly, the story has lots of resonances with Shakespeare's Hamlet, written in the year of Tycho's death.

During my research, I contacted Peter Andersen, who discovered and is now analysing Erik Brahe's diaries, and casually mentioned my research into the Strada family who, like Tycho in his final years, were also at the court of Rudolf II at Prague. Turns out that Octavio Strada actually met the murder suspect a couple of times. Money changed hands, and one of the entries was encrypted in Erik's secret code.

Watch this space, as the murder plot thickens ...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

what I found out this week

a few intriguing things I found out in the last few days:

* thanks to the new "algorithmic" search engine Wolfram alpha I can now check up where the space probe pioneer 10 is at the moment.

* also intrigued to find that Wolfram alpha gives the result in miles by default, although it generously offers metric conversion as an option.

* the oldest sculptures of human figures, such as the "Hohle Fels Venus" reported in the current issue of Nature, date from about the same time as the extinction of the Neanderthals. Now I wonder whether there is a causal connection, and if so, in which direction. Did Neanderthals die out because they weren't imaginative enough to compete in the arts scene? Or did Cro-Magnon relax from the stress of wiping out the competition by carving sexy figurines? We may never find out.

* on page 183 of the same issue, I discovered that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch appears to be a proper geographic name now, as Nature spells it with capitals. Previous generations got to name islands, volcanoes and ocean currents. All that's left on this planet for us to put geographic names to is garbage. Sign of the times ?

* What I still haven't found out but need to know, is whether Tycho Brahe was murdered, and who did it. Any clues, let me know.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

nanotube disco

My latest news story about carbon nanotube displays has just gone online:

Quick-switching carbon nanotube displays

When I researched this, I was intrigued to find out that the same lab had also developed powerful loudspeakers based on nanotubes. Surely, the fully nanotubed disco can't be far off.

The secret is all in the alignment of the tubes. Originally the authors had looked into aligning tubes as a way of getting long and strong threads to bypass the problem of creating tubes with macroscopic length, for applications where the strength of the material is crucial.

Monday, May 18, 2009

music news

my crystal ball tells me there will be two new albums by Shakira out this year, one in English and one in Spanish. The only specific date available so far is on -- they cite September 25th as the release date for an as yet un-named album. Instead of the cover design they show this:

which is of course an ancient picture from the famous pirate photoshoot, but, hey, as a spaceholder it's good enough.

So watch this space.

In other music news, Within Temptation have announced an "unplugged and seated" tour in smallish theatres in NL and Belgium next spring (see below). Have booked my ticket already.

Rerun theatre tour 2010!

We have great news! After receiving great responses on our sold out theatre tour in 2008, we decided to do a rerun of this tour, so you'll still have the opportunity to attend these special seated concerts. During these shows we will be playing a lot of our songs in an acoustic version and we'll have special lighting and visual effects. The tour will cover 17 shows in The Netherlands and Belgium.

These are the dates!

03-04-2010 Stadsschouwburg Middelburg, Middelburg, The Netherlands.
07-04-2010 Twentse Schouwburg, Enschede, The Netherlands
08-04-2010 Philharmonie, Haarlem, The Netherlands
09-04-2010 Stadsschouwburg Sittard-Geleen, Sittard, The Netherlands
11-04-2010 De Oosterpoort, Groningen, The Netherlands
12-04-2010 Nieuwe Luxor Theater, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
13-04-2010 Stadsschouwburg Orpheus, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands
14-04-2010 Theater Heerlen, Heerlen, The Netherlands
16-04-2010 Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
17-04-2010 Muziekcentrum Frits Philips, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
18-04-2010 Theater aan de Parade, 's-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands
20-04-2010 Vredenburg, Leidsche Rijn, Utrecht, The Netherlands
21-04-2010 Stadsgehoorzaal Leiden, Leiden, The Netherlands
23-04-2010 Concertgebouw de Vereeniging, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
24-04-2010 Theater De Meenthe, Steenwijk, The Netherlands
26-04-2010 Koningklijk Theater Carré, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
28-04-2010 Koningin Elisabethzaal, Antwerpen, Belgium

Check our tour schedule for the dates the venues will pre-sale tickets. These will be our first live shows after a long period of writing and recording. We are already looking forward to see you again!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

the trouble with water

In the most recent instalment of the Oxford History of Chemistry Seminar, I was intrigued by the story of the "distance problem" which remained unresolved for the entire length of the 19th century. As Hasok Chang reminded us, electricity and the electrolysis of water was known at the beginning of the century, and people were puzzled to see that if the two electrodes of a battery are immersed in water, a few inches apart, the oxygen will only develop on one side and the hydrogen only on the other. If it was true that water was a compound of oxygen and hydrogen, and if that compound was split up by electricity, how could the fragments turn up in different places ???

According to Chang, who is preparing a book about the history of research relating to water, the problem was debated throughout the 19th century, with wildly different hypotheses being brought forward. So for a long time there was a pluralism of interpretations, not a paradigm shift in Kuhnian terms.

It reminded me a lot of today's big open questions such as dark matter and dark energy, where we also have a very colourful collection of hypotheses but simply haven't got the right tools (yet) to get a definitive answer. Maybe if he manages to make the distance problem in water more widely known, this would help people understand that science doesn't always have a definitive answer for everything. After all it is important to understand the uncertainty in science, e.g. the uncertainty as to what will happen with the H1N1 "swine flu" virus.

Friday, May 15, 2009

origin of life breakthrough

In the big jigsaw that is the origin of life, there are two well-researched areas, namely the prebiotic chemistry giving rise to simple molecules such as amino acids, and the RNA world scenario, which concludes from today's peculiarities of biomolecules that RNA carried both genetic information and catalytic function in life before the evolution of proteins and DNA.

So far, there has been a huge gap between these two areas, as nobody could explain how prebiotic chemistry may have led to RNA. Now John Sutherland's group at Manchester has found a highly original new chemical approach to the issue. Bypassing the fundamental problem that the building blocks ribose, phosphate and the four information carrying nitrogen bases will not hook up in the right way under prebiotic conditions, the group found a new intermediate, 2-aminooxazole, which can be plausibly produced in a prebiotic setting, and which in turn can react to form a nucleoside including both the ribose and the pyrimidine base directly, without the need for a step hitching the sugar to the base.

While a similar path to purine bases remains to be discovered, I would reckon that this may well be the the biggest breakthrough in the origin of life field since the Urey Miller experiment more than 50 years ago. Suddenly, a complete solution, from prebiotic reactions to replicating living systems appears to be possible.


Synthesis of activated pyrimidine ribonucleotides in prebiotically plausible conditions p239
At some stage in the origin of life, an information-carrying polymer must have formed by purely chemical means. That polymer might have been RNA, but until now this theory has been hampered by a lack of evidence for a plausible route in which the ribonucleotides could have formed on prebiotic Earth. Here, just such a route is reported.
Matthew W. Powner, Béatrice Gerland & John D. Sutherland

News and Views:

Origins of life: Systems chemistry on early Earth p171
Understanding how life emerged on Earth is one of the greatest challenges facing modern chemistry. A new way of looking at the synthesis of RNA sidesteps a thorny problem in the field.
Jack W. Szostak

Thursday, May 14, 2009

reasons for asymmetry

There have been several books recently on the quest for reasons why life is made up of D sugars and L amino acids and ignores the mirror image versions of these molecules, which are identical by chemical and physical criteria. While it is clear that biomolecular systems work better if they only use one of the mirror image versions, it is far from clear which symmetry-breaking event allowed chiral life to arise and prosper in a mostly achiral world.

My review of the book

The origin of chirality in the molecules of life
By Albert Guijarro and Miguel Yus
RSC Publishing 2009
ISBN 978-0-85404-156-5

has now appeared in Chemistry & Industry, issue 9, p. 30. Here's a snippet:

Albert Guijarro and Miguel Yus describe the chirality problem and our current best guesses at its solution very systematically in their book. They start from first principles with the physics of time and space and precise physical definitions of symmetry and asymmetry. They very usefully split the problem into two fundamental aspects: symmetry-breaking events, and mechanisms that could amplify existing imbalance between enantiomers.

Readers who aren't very good at (or keen on) theoretical physics may find

Uwe Meierhenrich: Amino Acids and the Asymmetry of Life: Caught in the Act of Formation, Springer 2008

a bit more accessible.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

BBK magazine

A while ago, I helped my friends at the school of crystallography at Birkbeck College prepare a press release on their latest research in assisted protein folding:

Protein folding in the womb

This piece has now been published (anonymously) in Birkbeck's magazine, BBK, which is accessible to all in a PDF file. My piece is on the bottom half of page 5 of the magazine (page 7 of the pdf file). The first piece is also about structural biology work from the Birkbeck crystallography department, by Gabriel Waksman.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

green economy ?

As several clever people have pointed out already, the current financial crisis and the resulting massive state intervention is a unique chance for governments to redirect the economy not only towards financially sustainable operations but also towards a ecologically sustainable economy (and towards mitigation of climate change in particular).

Detailed analysis of the "green component" of state rescue packages in various parts of the world has shown, however, that this opportunity is used only very little. Most recently, the UK government has disappointed those who hoped for a green budget. Read my news feature in today's issue of Current Biology (issue 9,p. R345):

Green shoots
(restricted access)

While the UK government presents a budget hoped to tackle economic as well as environmental challenges, other countries have taken the lead in harnessing the economic interventions for ecological gains.

Monday, May 11, 2009

luv is all around

According to this report in the Guardian, there is only one team publishing academic research based on quantitative analysis of communications on MySpace. I find that quite surprising, as it is such an obvious model system of human interactions, networks, etc. I would have thought that dozens of research groups would have pounced on it years ago. In the pre-MySpace age I met somebody who analysed networks by looking at the recommendations on So I would have expected that this kind of research would have moved to MySpace pretty quickly, when it came up.

Also surprised to read that most males on MySpace have more female than male friends (in stark contrast to the RL situation). And I always thought that was just me. It does make a lot of sense though, as the physical distance makes it safer ... :)

Saturday, May 09, 2009


Oxford city's art week has started today (the north of the county a week earlier, the south a week later). As in the last few years, I am disappointed that artists seem to have evaporated from our neighbourhood. Around 2000, there were three exhibitions in our road, and a few more in the surrounding area, now there is nothing. If that state of affair continues, I will have to show my own works, and you'll all be sorry ...

Meanwhile, we have to cycle down to the city centre, Jericho, and Summertown areas, where there are so many exhibitions in a small space that you can easily spend a day crawling from one site to the next. To start it off slowly, I've just visited one site (a small gallery that I hadn't seen before) in Jericho. Will check more as the week progresses.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

2 cultures turn 50

Today is the 50th anniversary of CP Snow's (in)famous "2 cultures" lecture. My impression is that the rift is alive and well, and UK education is actively digging it deeper by forcing pupils to decide at 16 which culture they choose. As most will only have 3 subjects for A levels, many will end up doing 3 from the science/maths side, others do 3 from the humanities.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

biodiversity in bahamas and peru

There is another pair of Earthwatch lectures coming up tomorrow:

Conserving Biodiversity in the Americas
Thursday 7th May, 7pm-8.30pm at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR
Chaired by Dr. George McGavin, author, lecturer, television presenter and explorer.

The Amazon and the Caribbean must rank as two of the most attractive locations on earth, but this very fact renders them all the more vulnerable to exploitation, and the environmental disturbance that will inevitably follow.

Coastal Ecology of the Bahamas
Dr. Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, University of Miami

Given their obvious appeal to tourists, the Bahamas have until recently been comparatively unmarred by development; but as the demands mount, so does the need for vigilance. Using a mixture of traditional methods and the latest technology such as satellite image maps, this project, initiated in 2002, is charting the distribution and health of species both above and below the waterline, with the aim of balancing economic development with environmental protection.

Amazon Riverboat Exploration
Dr. Richard Bodmer, Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology and the Wildlife Conservation Society

In many areas of the world's largest river, illegal timber companies, pet traders, and hunters have decimated wildlife. This brings extra urgency to the research being conducted by Dr. Bodmer's team of local scientists and Earthwatch volunteers on two near-pristine stretches of the Peruvian Amazon. Operating from a vintage boat
dating from the rubber boom period, they are collecting data on the extraordinary variety of species found there, from manatee and giant river otter to macaw and woolly monkey, with a view to securing their conservation.

Numbers are limited so call +44 (0)1865 318856 or email today to avoid disappointment!


I've just seen a rehearsal of the Bahamas talk and was intrigued to learn that the islands have virtually no freshwater resources -- all the drinking water for the zillions of tourists (not to mention their golf courses) must be produced in situ by desalting sea water using reverse osmosis. And all the food imported to the islands ends up adding to the eutrophication of their coastal waters. Makes you think. (All the water that Shakira drinks while recording her new album, and the fresh carrots that she eats ... )

PS: this is the 100th post with the label "sciencenews" !!! (to clarify its meaning: sciencenews are blog-exclusive, while the sciencejournalism label is for blog posts referencing pieces I have published elsewhere.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

climate change by numbers

The current issue of Nature has two very significant research papers on the modelling of climate change and how much carbon dioxide we can still emit before crossing the threshold towards unmitigated disaster (pp 1158, 1163). It's all very depressing reading, but good to have some solid numbers to fall back on (and very easy to remember: 1 trillion tons of CO2 = very bad news). Plus there are also several editorial pieces to explain the background.

I just have to disagree with the headline of the editorial which says "Time to act". The time to act was 15 years ago. I remember learning about all this at the tail end of the previous environmental crisis (forests dying from SO2 and acid rain) and I remember how I first came across a mention of CO2 as a pollutant, and thinking what's wrong with CO2 now? That must have been about 1989 -- I was involved in local politics with Germany's Green Party at the time.

If there is one thing we haven't got now it's time. And very depressingly, as has become obvious from the recent not so very green budget of the UK government, certain politicians haven't understood that yet. Or maybe they just cynically rely on the fact that the catastrophe will only happen after they are out of office anyway ...

Monday, May 04, 2009

Oxford views

I'm not sure whether this means that the sky's the limit or that blue sky thinking has now been banned at Oxford, draw your own conclusions ... The sign hasn't stopped me from uploading another five Oxford-related photos to my profile at the VIEW fotocommunity.

That site is rather amazing. You're only allowed to upload five smallish pix per week (20 if you pay for a subscription). Photos with the category label Architektur get around 10 views in the first week, those with the label Akt get more than 800 on the first day. Honi soit qui mal y pense!

There is an editorial selection process for photos to be included in the rather amazing theme galleries, and in the monthly VIEW magazine and other publications of the same publishing house. So far, I don't think my pix are at any risk of being picked for anything, but I'm warming up to the challenge ...

Sunday, May 03, 2009

towards tandem solar cells

Dye-sensitized solar cells (DSSCs), invented by Michael Grätzel and Brian O’Regan in 1991, are recognized as a cost-efficient alternative to traditional photovoltaic cells. Typically, they are based on n-type semiconductors (e.g. TiO2) as the anode where the light energy is harvested. More recently, researchers have introduced the reverse type of solar cell, where p-type semiconductors (e.g. NiO) act as a light-harvesting cathode. N- and p-type semiconductors are doped with small amounts of negative or positive charge carriers, respectively. In DSSCs, the organic dye molecule takes over the function of doping, injecting electrons or holes, respectively, into the semiconductor material.

Now the group of Licheng Sun and Anders Hagfeldt at the Royal Institute of Technology at Stockholm , Sweden , have more than doubled the efficiency of p-type semiconductor DSSCs, opening up the prospect of using them in tandem with the traditional Grätzel cell, i.e. in an arrangement where both electrodes contribute to the conversion of solar energy.

Read my story in Chemistry World (open access).

Friday, May 01, 2009

towards better biofuels

I've written a feature article on second generation biofuels (i.e. those that make use of waste materials or at least of whole plants as opposed to edible parts of food crops), which is out in the May issue of Education in Chemistry and on open access.

The story also made it onto the cover of the magazine: