Research round-up

Kevin Agnew takes a look at some of the most exciting scientific research of the last week

Organic chemists complete a total synthesis of potential anti-cancer molecule Bryostatin 1

In the search for molecules with potential anti-cancer properties, scientists have often turned to natural sources to find good leads. One such natural source was a marine creature known as Bugula Neritina, a red, bushy, fern-like invertebrate often mistaken for seaweed. It was discovered that this organism produced a series of molecules known as bryostatins, which have been identified as having potential anti-cancer properties as well as applications in treating HIV and Alzheimer’s. The problem was the scarcity of this complex molecule whose structure consisted of 132 atoms. Scientists had to gather up 14 tons of the sea creature just to amass 18 grams of the precious molecule it produced, making the opportunity for research and clinical trials all but impossible.

Enter organic chemists who, using a synthetic technique known as total synthesis, where they build up large complex molecules in multiple steps from simple, readily available starting materials, have discovered a route towards making Bryostatin 1 (one of the most promising molecules within the bryostatin series) on a gram scale. The synthesis involves 29 separate steps and intermediates along the synthetic route and can be modified by the chemists into analogues of bryostatins with other potentially interesting properties. This research demonstrates the power of organic chemistry in making important molecules that are in scarce supply in nature. Total synthesis is a painstaking field within organic chemistry and often involves decades of human years in research to develop routes to these complex molecules, a fact that further highlights the significance of this achievement.

Astrophysicists develop new technique for measuring the distance from earth to the far side of the Milky Way

In order to measure the distances to astronomical sources within the galaxy, astrophysicists have often relied on the parallax, which is a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object, ie the astronomical source, when viewed from two different lines of sight that physicists express in terms of the intersecting angle between the two lines of sight. This technique has its limitations however. Up to now, physicists have not been able to accurately measure the distance from earth to the far side of the Milky way as the optical light along their lines of sight is often blocked by interstellar dust and the parallax is very small to begin with.

Recently however, Alberto Sanna, and his team at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, have used a new technique called radio interferometry, which involves using multiple radio telescope antennae together as a single telescope to provide a high resolution image of objects at great distances. Using this technique, Sanna and his team have been able to more accurately discern the galactic spiral structure of the Milky Way and trace it through an entire rotation of the Milky Way galaxy, giving us a better picture of what the galaxy looks like from afar.

New and improved method for brain imaging of newborn babies

Elucidating brain functions and revealing abnormalities by using functional neuroimaging and electroencephalography (EEG) has become pivotal in being able to understand brain function. The technology works by placing electrodes on the scalp to monitor the electrical activity of the brain. However, the technology has its limitations due to the size, poor portability and high cost of the devices used which prevents their use in the bedside care of patients.

Recently however, researchers have designed their own portable and customisable version of this device that they call FUSI (functional ultrasound imaging) which provides them with an EEG of the brain microvasculature of the person being examined. They demonstrated the effectiveness of this new device by using it to monitor and observe the brain activity in newborn babies with abnormal brain development in a bedside clinical setting. This improved convenience of clinical use of EEG will allow for better monitoring and care of patients with abnormal brain development and is an exciting advancement in clinical neuroscience.

A new and more efficient way of making methanol

Methanol is one of those bulk chemicals that all industrial nations need to fuel their economies and industries. It is primarily used for making further chemicals found in plastics, paints, explosives, and textiles. Methanol has also been touted as potential fuel of the future which could be used to power our cars. The problem, however, is that making methanol is costly. It needs to be converted from methane gas at very high temperatures and pressures. These are processes which are very expensive and so place a heavy financial burden on industrial economies. This problem has thus triggered research into developing more efficient ways of making methanol from methane.

A paper published in Science by researchers from Cardiff University has reported a new method which can convert methane into methanol in mild temperatures of only 50 degrees celsius with 92% yields. They utilised gold and palladium colloid nanoparticles as catalysts, tiny groupings of metal atoms that accelerate sluggish reactions, to react oxygen with methane to produce methanol via a radical reaction. Radical reactions involve unpaired electrons, and are highly reactive processes that can be very effective when channelled appropriately. This discovery is poised to be a significant advancement in the efficiency of these industrial processes should it find suitable application and may lower the costs of many related products we use in everyday life.