Game on: gamers beat scientists at modelling proteins

Stand back scientists: gamers have beaten highly qualified crystallographers, undergraduates and even computer algorithms at creating an accurate model on a protein, based on its biochemical data.
A team of scientists in America pitted the participants of the study against each other. In one corner, two highly trained crystallographers, in another, 61 undergraduate students using computer modelling programs, in the third, two computer algorithms, and in the last corner, 469 gamers playing a game called Foldit.
All they had to do was create a model of…

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Magic material: the textiles which can heal themselves

How long does a piece of clothing last you before you have to throw it away and get a new one?

Clothing designers are beginning to use a technology from all sorts of applications, from mechanical engineering to buildings, to improve the lifetimes of clothing. In small electrical components and large buildings alike, fractures and cracks can be catastrophic. In many cases, it is simply too hard to detect all of these problems, so scientists make the problems solve themselves! Using materials which can self-heal – that is, repair themselves with no external influence – can make designs last much longer and prevent many disasters.

Self-healing fabrics provide a way for clothing to become more durable, and increasingly…

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Helium shortage solution: we finally have a way to predict where to find supplies of Helium

More helium is used each year than we produce. That sounds strange, since helium is the second most abundant element in the universe. Unfortunately though, it doesn’t stay on earth long – it’s so light that it just floats away. We can only obtain it from reserves found by chance during oil and gas drilling, and supplies are being depleted fast.

This is a problem for all sorts of industries. Helium is spectacularly good at keeping things cool, and that’s useful from scientific research (to freeze out complicating factors in experiments) to spacecraft. It’s used to cool telescopes, the fuel used in the Apollo space vehicles, nuclear reactors, the Large Hadron Collider, and most prominently MRI machines, which take up a fifth of the global use of helium. Helium’s low density also means it makes balloons float, from party balloons to enormous airships, and it can be used in lasers to scan barcodes at supermarket checkouts amongst many more.

As the known reserves of helium are being depleted and becoming privatised, helium’s prices fluctuate massively, and the price of helium has gone up 500% in the last 15 years. Well, not any more…

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Four names for four elements

A week ago, the four new elements of the periodic table discovered in December 2015 were named: Nihonium, Moscovium, Tennessine and Oganesson, with the respective symbols Nh, Mc, Ts and Og respectively. These are elements 113, 115, 117 and 118, the final elements required to complete the table’s seventh row.

The names were proposed by the discoverers and accepted by IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. They are now open for public review, to ensure that there are no chemicals currently given these names or symbols. This review is open for five months, until November 2016, and then the names will be formally approved by IUPAC. Elements can be named after a mythical concept, a mineral, a country, a property or a scientist. The associated symbol has to be completely unique and not be used for any other element, molecule or material.

Nihonium was discovered by a Japanese team at…

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Meteorites solve a mystery of life?

In the lab, two chemical products are normally made. The product is a racemic mixture, meaning that it is composed of molecules which are structurally identical, but which are mirror images of each other. Mysteriously, in biological processes, only one of these mirror images is made.

The pair of mirror molecules are called enantiomers, and arise from the chirality of the molecule. If a molecule is chiral, its mirror image is not superimposable onto the original molecule. A reaction gives one or both mirror images, which are labelled right handed (D enantiomers) or left handed (L enantiomers). In nature, normally only the right handed version of any sugars, and the left handed enantiomer of any amino acids is made, allowing the reactions within the body to be so selective.

But where does this homochirality come from? Analysis…

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Alluring alloys: how thousands of new alloys can now be created

Pure metals are made up of regular layers of atoms neatly stacked together. This means that the rows can easily slide past each other, so the metal is soft and not very useful. Normally harder materials, called alloys, are made by adding small amounts of other substances to disrupt the regular pattern and stop the rows from sliding so easily. These are used for many purposes, from weaponry to aircraft.

But what happens when many metals are mixed in roughly the same quantities? Well, this is what scientists at Ames Laboratory in Iowa are trying to determine. By mixing a number of different metals…

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Carbyne Creation: the world’s strongest material

Carbyne, the world’s strongest known material, has always been elusive! For something so strong, it is very unstable, and its high reactivity has made it a challenge to create and isolate.

Scientists at the University of Vienna have now devised a method of mass producing carbyne. It can create stable chains 6,400 carbon atoms long, 64 times as long as the previous longest chain.

Carbyne is formally known as linear acetylenic carbon, a linear and infinitely long carbon chain. It is perfectly straight, due to its sp1 hybridisation, which means it can form alternating single and triple bonds to adjacent carbons. Considering hybridisation is a method of determining the…

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High Pressure Hydrogen: Predicted Metallic Phase is Almost Reached

Hydrogen is a light, explosive gas at Earth’s atmospheric pressures, but in the centre of a gas giant such as Jupiter, scientists believe it exists in a metallic, superconducting phase.

Metallic hydrogen is thought to play a vital role in the inner workings of gas giants. In the centre of a gas giant, at pressures of over 4,500 million times the atmospheric pressure of Earth, hydrogen is metallic and is thought to be able to conduct electricity with zero resistance. In January, Physicists at the University of Edinburgh came close to recreating this phase on Earth, by compressing a micron cubed of hydrogen between two diamonds to pressures up to…

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DNA’s hidden talents: From Diodes to Data Storage

Your DNA controls the structure of your whole body, how it works, and even who you are. It stores an immense amount of data, and it turns out that’s not all it can do.

Scientists from the Universities of Negev and Georgia have created a diode, an electronic component which allows current to flow in one direction, but stops it in the other, from DNA. It is only 11 base pairs long, and about 4 nm in length. What makes it so special is…

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Quantum Dots: A tiny treatment for a massive killer

Drug-resistant bacteria are growing ever more powerful and becoming common killers. Luckily, now a new method of treatment has recently emerged, which could kill up to 92% of these infections.

Quantum dots are tiny flecks of fluorescent semiconducting material, only 10-100 atoms in diameter. That translates to about a 20,000th of the width of a human hair! They may be small, but…

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