Tag Archives: Chemistry

The World’s Farms Are Hooked on Phosphorus. It’s a Problem

WIRED

Half of the globe’s crop productivity comes from a key fertilizer ingredient that’s non-renewable—and literally washing away.

DISRUPTING EARTH’S CHEMICAL cycles brings trouble. But planet-warming carbon dioxide isn’t the only element whose cycle we’ve turned wonky—we’ve got a phosphorus problem too. And it’s a big one, because we depend on this element to grow the world’s crops. “I don’t know if it would be possible to have a full world without any mineral phosphorus fertilizer,” says Joséphine Demay, a PhD student at INRAE, France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.

Since the 1800s, agriculturalists have known that elemental phosphorus is a crucial fertilizer. Nations quickly began mining caches of “phosphate rock,” minerals rich in the element. By the middle of the 20th century, companies had industrialized chemical processes to turn it into a form suitable for supercharging crops, hardening them against disease and making them able to support more people and livestock. That approach worked remarkably well: The post-World War II “Green Revolution” fed countless people thanks to fertilizers and pesticides. But sometimes there’s too much of a good thing.

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The Sci-Fi Dream of a ‘Molecular Computer’ Is Getting More Real

WIRED

Chemists have long conceptualized tiny machines that could fabricate drugs, plastics, and other polymers that are hard to build with bigger tools.

DAVID LEIGH DREAMS of building a small machine. Really small. Something minuscule. Or more like … molecule. “Chemists like me have been working on trying to turn molecules into machines for about 25 years now,” says Leigh, an organic chemist from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. “And of course, it’s all baby steps. You’re building on all those that went before you.”

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These Nanobots Can Swim Around a Wound and Kill Bacteria

WIRED

Researchers have created autonomous particles covered with patches of protein “motors.” They hope these bots will tote lifesaving drugs through bodily fluids.

THERE’S ALWAYS BEEN something seductive about a nanobot. Comic books and movies implore you to imagine these things, thousands of times thinner than a human hair and able to cruise around a body and repair a bone or heal an illness. (Or, if they’re more nefarious, simply explode.) Their scale is unfathomably finite. Their possibilities, sci-fi will have you believe, wildly infinite. While that incongruity makes it perfect for the denizens of a writers’ room figuring out how to kill James Bond, it’s also a sort of curse. Surely we can’t take tech like this seriously. Can we?

It turns out, the nanobots are among us.

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This Plastic Dot Sniffs Out Infections Doctors Can’t See

WIRED

Keeping wounds covered can help them stay clean. But if bacteria grow beneath the bandages, things can get dangerous.

LIFE, AT ALL scales, leaves behind chemical fingerprints. Some are scents we can pick up with our noses: Jasmine petals lend their sweet aldehydes; an upstairs neighbor leaves his noxious amines in the stairwell. “But there are also gasses that we can’t smell, because they’re just that basic kind of background,” says Andrew Mills, a professor of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom. “Things basically undergoing life, turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.”

Mills specializes in detecting volatile chemicals, from stinky sulfides to odorless CO2. His lab has focused on sensing gasses as signatures of strange life in undesirable places: Think contaminated ground beef and—more recently—infected wounds. In a study published last month in the journal Chemical Communications, Mills unveiled a simple CO2 detector that can be inserted into dressings for chronic wounds. It changes color when it senses rising concentrations of the gas, a tell-tale sign of dangerous infections.

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An AI Finds Superbug-Killing Potential in Human Proteins

WIRED

A team scoured the human proteome for antimicrobial molecules and found thousands, plus a surprise about how animals evolved to fight infections.

MARCELO DER TOROSSIAN Torres lifted the clear plastic cover off of a petri dish one morning last June. The dish, still warm from its sleepover in the incubator, smelled of rancid broth. Inside it sat a rubbery bed of amber-colored agar, and on that bed lay neat rows of pinpricks—dozens of colonies of drug-resistant bacteria sampled from the skin of a lab mouse.

Torres counted each pinprick softly to himself, then did some quick calculations. Untreated for the infection, the samples taken from an abscess on the mouse had yielded billions of superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But to his surprise, some of the other rows on the petri dish seemed empty. These were the ones corresponding to samples from mice that received an experimental treatment—a novel antibiotic.

Torres dug up other dishes cultured from more concentrated samples, taken from the same mice who had gotten the antibiotic. These didn’t look empty. When he counted them up, he found that the antibiotic had nuked the bacterial load so that it was up to a million times sparser than the sample from the untreated mouse. “I got very excited,” says Torres, a postdoc specializing in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. But this custom antibiotic wasn’t entirely his own recipe. It took an artificial intelligence algorithm scouring a database of human proteins to help Torres and his team find it.

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From Chemist to Food-Tech CEO

ACS ChemMatters Magazine

Aidan Mouat credits “dumb luck” for setting him on a path from chemist to CEO. Mouat has for the past six years run Hazel Technologies, which invented a small packet of chemicals to keep food fresh longer before reaching grocers.

If your store shelves are stocked year-round, you might wonder why these pouches are useful in the first place. What you don’t see is what gets thrown away. The reality is that the world produces “a colossal amount of food waste,” Mouat says. “We have a food system that is focused very heavily on production, instead of efficiency.” So, Mouat and his company co-founders devised a way to help prevent produce spoilage on its way from farm to store.

Read the full story in the December issue of ChemMatters

This Protein Predicts a Brain’s Future after Traumatic Injury

WIRED

A blood test of “NfL” proteins answers questions about damage severity that doctors—and families—desperately need.

NEIL GRAHAM SEES a lot of head injuries: “Car accidents, violence, assault, gunshots, stabbing—the works, really,” says Graham, a neurologist from Imperial College London who practices at St. Mary’s Hospital nearby.

Doctors stop the bleeding, they relieve any pressure building inside the skull, maybe they’ll put the patient into a coma to keep the brain from overworking when it needs to relax and heal. Imaging can also help—to an extent. CT scans or MRIs pinpoint bruising or specks of hemorrhage in gray matter, the brain’s outer layer where neurons do most of their processing. But a clean scan isn’t a clean bill of health. Trauma to axons—a neuron’s root-like fibers that extend toward other neurons—often appears only in the deeper white matter, sometimes eluding simple scans.

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The Artificial Leaf: Copying Nature to Fight Climate Change

ACS ChemMatters Magazine

An ancient chemical process enabled Earth to become a lush place teeming with life. Now researchers are replicating this process in an attempt to slow global warming.

Every plant, animal, and person owes their life to one sequence of chemical reactions: photosynthesis. The process, which converts water and carbon dioxide into food using sunlight, first evolved in cyanobacteria more than 2 billion years ago.

That’s right. Plants weren’t the first organisms to develop photosynthesis, though they are better known for it. Cyanobacteria are the ones that originally filled the atmosphere with photosynthesis’s gaseous by-product, oxygen (O2), which set the stage for more diverse life on Earth.

As beneficiaries of photosynthesis, humans depend on plants in a sort of carbon seesaw. Plants take in CO2 and release O2. They store that carbon as sugar. Hanging vines, grass, and trees all grow by pulling carbon atoms out of the air. We do the reverse, taking in O2 and releasing CO2. Finally, everything we eat completes the handoff: Human eats plant (or the animal who already did), human exhales, plant stores carbon, and the cycle continues.

This seesaw is part of the much broader carbon cycle that has affected the radiation balance of our planet. Cutting down huge swaths of forests and the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels causes the levels of CO2, a major greenhouse gas, to rise. And plants on Earth along with other natural parts of the carbon cycle can’t restore the balance on their own.

But what if we could copy what plants do to grab some of that excess CO2 to make fuels sustainably, instead of relying so heavily on fossilized carbon?

Read the full story in the October 2021 issue of ChemMatters

This Device Could Tune Your Heart—Then Dissolve Away

WIRED

The latest in “electronic medicine” offers an alternative to temporary pacemakers and could help reduce tissue scarring.

THE HEART—THAT PARAGON of natural rhythm—sometimes needs help to stay on beat. Permanent pacemakers, which supply jolts of muscle-contracting current to regulate each thump, can correct chronically irregular hearts, and temporary ones can resolve fleeting dysfunctions that follow open heart surgery. Doctors wire up the heart with electrical leads that pass through the skin, and the muscle tissue envelopes the intruding electrodes like quicksand.

But if the pacemaker is just a temporary precaution, it’s all got to come out. And that’s where it gets tricky.

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The Race to Put Silk in Nearly Everything

WIRED

The fiber has been considered a “miracle material” for anything from body parts to food. Has the revolution finally arrived?

ALI ALWATTARI STILL remembers the day he met the goats. It was mid-May, 19 years ago, in Quebec. The sun was lighting up the old maple sugar farm—and small huts where the goats were living. Alwattari, a materials scientist, had spent his career tinkering with chemistry equipment for Procter & Gamble, developing fibers used in Pampers and Swiffers. But the startup Nexia Biotechnologies was aiming to use an entirely different kind of polymer producer—and it was gazing back at him with its rectangular pupils.

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