Freeing The Newt Within
Jul28

Freeing The Newt Within

Who hasn’t dreamed of having extraordinary powers? Telekinesis, flight, or, perhaps, a third arm? In the upcoming 2 August issue of C&EN, Sophie Rovner has a story on limb regeneration and its promise for human therapy. Newts are champions at regrowing lost arms and legs, she told me. Which got us to talking about whether we’d like to grow some extra limbs, as a tadpole has in one of the story’s images. A third arm offers many potential benefits—skiers could use an extra pole, helping better control their movement and speed; rock climbers could be like Spider-Man, able to dangle from a sheer cliff ledge and eat lunch at the same time; and gymnasts would be able to do handstands with unnatural ease. I, however, would use that third limb to hold my coffee bowl (I would say mug, but it’s way too big to be called that) like a champ while I type, edit for C&EN, walk, photograph, sleep … It might seem a waste, but using my third arm for holding coffee is more rewarding to me than using it for nefarious purposes like Doc Ock does. Although without my coffee, Washington, D.C., had better watch out! But having a third upper extremity would tax a person’s body more than superhuman characters make it appear on the big screen. To maintain equal strength, let alone build more, you’d have to spend longer at the gym (or dangling from a wall) because you’d be working more limbs. But in today’s time-crunched, highly caffeinated society, more time to work out (any time to work out) is hard to come by. And the extra deodorant and special clothes needed would greatly increase cost-of-living expenses, not to mention the massages to work out muscle tension caused by the weight and use of the arm on a body not designed for an extra limb. That would make it a pretty expensive cup holder. So, I’m not exactly convinced that the extra appendage is really all that desirable. I’m open to debate, however. What extra body part would you want (keep it clean—we’re a family blog!), what would you do with it, and how (or how not) would it alter your day-to-day? Doc Ock photo graciously provided by wagner_arts, coffee by Shutterstock, and Photoshopping work by Robin Braverman of...

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Snoverkill Safety
Feb10

Snoverkill Safety

Safety goggles protect the eyes from more than stray chemicals: this hardy worker protects his eyes from the driving wind and snow of today's Snowpocalypse III, Snoverkill, GroceryStore Thunderdome, Snoverload, whatever you want to call it. Although ACS offices have been closed all week, C&EN is still operating, and we do need to eat. Venturing into the tempest, Deputy Editor-in-Chief Maureen Rouhi, Associate Editor Linda Wang, and I went to pick up lunch for the seven of us who stayed in hotels in town or braved the commute to get to headquarters and produce the magazine on schedule. On our way back with the victuals, we encountered this fellow shoveling the sidewalk in front of the hotel/restaurant. Most people in DC seem to have taken a light-hearted outlook to the past couple Snowpocalypses, unlike the first one in December, when a cop pulled a gun at a snowball fight. This fellow chuckled and was very happy to have his picture taken with Linda. As quoted from a fellow C&ENer who saw this photo, "Linda looks like she's about to happily bonk the equally happy grinning dude! Reminds me of Japanese...

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Elements Abound In D.C.
Jan28

Elements Abound In D.C.

After reading Beth's elemental town-name Newscripts last week, I spent a bit of time looking through Nicholas C. Thomas' article trying to find the closest elmental town to Washington, D.C. Of the ones listed, Barium Springs, N.C., is the closest, at just under 400 miles away. (Although Alloy, W.Va., is a bit closer, it's not an elemental name, so I'm not counting it.) I thought this area should have tons of elementally named towns, what with all the science that goes on here. Maybe we can convince some towns to change their names for the International Year of Chemistry 2011? I'm thinking "Radon, District of Columbia" has a nice ring to it (especially as we're ringing out Radon Action Month). Or maybe "Lead," to go with all the contamination we have in our soil and water. Anyhow, not finding any towns in the area currently named after elements, I was surprised to stumble upon some graffiti on the trash can across the street from my apartment building. I'm not sure if this is someone's nickname or a territorial marker, but it made my day and got me thinking, which reminded me of this elementally named night club/lounge/restaurant only blocks from the American Chemical Society headquarters. So, I did a Google maps search for a bunch of elements in D.C. Not surprisingly, fluorine, sodium, neon, and other commonly known and used elements popped up a lot. But I also found a nice elemental shoe and clothing store just down the road from my apartment. When I asked Carbon's owner, Kevin Powers, whether there was any chemistry behind naming his store, he responded with "I sell shoes, furniture and accessories. At the molecular level, they each include carbon as an element... A nice common 'bond.' " Most of D.C.'s elemental and chemical names appear in buildings such as this, which houses (although you'd never know it) Alkylphenols & Ethoxylates, the Environmental Arsenic Council, the Chlorinated Paraffins Industry Association, the Acrylonitrile Group, the Emulsion Polymers Council, the Vinyl Acetate Council, et cetera. Not as exciting as the graffiti, night clubs, and shopping options in the area, although the workers in this particular building got to witness a little bit of action a few months ago when a protester stopped traffic in a busy intersection to demand a few million...

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May I Have A Little Acid In My Salt Water, Please?
Oct02

May I Have A Little Acid In My Salt Water, Please?

"The oceans, despite their appearance, are not inexhaustible, vast, and infinitely forgiving." So said Sigourney Weaver of "Alien" fame prior to a press conference in the Capitol on Tuesday. The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had just released its video "Acid Test: The Global Challenge of Ocean Acidification," narrated by Weaver. (Click the link to watch the full video.) Ocean acidification is one of the big side effects of ever-increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. "There has been a lot of focus on climate change, but a lot of people don't know about ocean acidification," I overheard Weaver--who stood only feet away from me in a 20- by 20-foot room full of chairs, people, and cameras--saying prior to the screening of "Acid Test." The CO2 we pump out doesn't all just stay in the air; about 20-plus million tons per day of it goes into the water, too, forming carbonic acid, which alters the ocean's pH and makes living difficult for some marine critters. The acidic ocean's effects on every marine creature (a lot of which aren't yet known) can't yet be exactly determined, but there is still a lot that is known. "Ocean acidification has a lot of the world's leading scientists freaked out," Weaver said. Although the average pH of the world's oceans has dropped by only about 0.2 pH units since the Industrial Revolution (when we started burning lots of stuff for energy, thus jettisoning CO2 into the atmosphere), that is a bigger change than has occurred since the time of the dinosaurs' extinction, said Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist at NRDC who was in the film and was a panel member who answered questions after the video screening. Ocean organisms alive today are not used to handling such rapid (in an evolutionary timescale) environmental change, and we land-bound animals rely heavily on the bounty of the seas to survive. Suatoni emphasized, "You don't have to live on the coast to have ocean acidification affect your food supply." "If the smallest things in the ocean are affected by ocean acidification, then it ripples all the way up the food web, making the largest things in the ocean even more in danger," said marine ecologist Stephen R. Palumbi of Stanford University in the video. And predictions estimate that will happen in just a few decades--the "tipping point" of atmospheric CO2 concentrations that will lead to a world-average ocean acidity high enough to basically melt sea life is only 450 to 550 ppm, Suatoni said, answering a question from the audience. Current levels are around 375 ppm and increasing. To put ocean acidification in perspective, Suatoni noted in...

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The How Of Chemistry
Aug17

The How Of Chemistry

Yesterday, I attended the Application of Natural Products in Organic Farming session, sponsored by the AGRO division. I went strictly for personal interest (I wanted to be a farmer when I was a child, and I sort of still do), not necessarily for journalistic reasons. I caught most of the session, but I started fading after the coffee break. Imagine my surprise, like a rush of adrenaline, when I heard mention of Chromobacterium subtsugae, a biocontrol agent I worked on at USDA during a thesislike project in high school. (I think I'm okay to say that--I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, of course.) Marja E. Koivunen, the presenter who mentioned this bacterium, is vice president of R&D at Marrone BioInnovations, the company that has licensed this microbe from the lab I interned at. I had come in on the C. subtsugae project after more than a decade of research had already been done, and another seven years have passed since then. As an intern, you don't get to see the entire process from lead discovery to commercialization, just the tiny bits you get to work on in the three months before you have to move on and go back to school. It's the same with my internship at BASF, working on a fungicide (again, nondisclosure). I came in late in the process, worked on it a little bit, and left. I am pretty certain that the product has been released and is currently seeking regulatory approval, but no one confirmed that with me when I asked previously. It's amazing, to me, to have been just an intern and see what I had a hand in be released upon the world's markets. But then I wondered how, exactly, do these products work? What the products do and to whom/what is known, as it must be for EPA approval, but EPA doesn't necessarily care what exactly the active compounds are or how exactly they do their job: EPA only really cares about toxicity data, according to some of the presenters at the session. I myself am very interested in the mode of action of pesticides. After all the mice, rat, nontarget organism toxicity, whatever testing is done, I might not worry about dying from spraying something on my tomatoes. But I like to know why the compound does what it does and how it acts while it's doing it. The closest any presenter came to satisfying that desire for me was Murray B. Isman, from the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. His research on rosemary oil as a biopesticide revealed that of the 10 most prevalent compounds (out of...

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