Transforming chemical discovery and innovation

The National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemistry (CHE) aims to be a global leader in transforming chemical discovery and innovation, as Open Access Government finds out

The Division of Chemistry (CHE) supports research in chemical sciences and works to advance education through strategic investment in developing a globally-engaged chemistry workforce that reflects the diversity of the United States

It encourages chemists to lead multi-disciplinary efforts to expand human knowledge and address societal problems, both short and long-term. The CHE also has a major role in communicating the value of chemistry to the public.

As part of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the CHE has awarded millions of dollars to support research initiatives in all 50 states. California has the received the most funding, with $173.9 million distributed to 251 projects.

Recent research backed by the CHE has helped scientists at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University to detect previously unknown triggers for toxicity in nanomaterials caused by an automated system designed to speed up their delivery for testing in fish.

In the early days of nanotechnology, toxicologists’ hand-delivered microscopic nanoparticles using pipettes for exposure to zebrafish. Based on that approach, the four-member research team found that individually, the widely used mix of inorganic nanoparticles and surfactants – compounds that reduce surface tension in liquids to improve mixing – were not toxic.

However, automation – using devices similar to inkjet printers to rapidly inject materials employing small amounts of surfactant to control the size of the delivered droplets – created a synergistic, or multiplying, the effect that triggered toxicity. In testing, there was an 88% mortality rate among zebrafish embryos.

While it is not yet clear if the new-found toxicity could pose a threat to human health, the research, which was published in the journal ACS Nano, has been described as a “wake-up call” that could ultimately help the cutting-edge field of nanotechnology to advance.

Study co-author Jim Hutchinson of the University of Oregon’s Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry says: “Years after showing that these materials were the most benign and among the least toxic materials that we’ve ever seen, we did these experiments with the surfactants and found that, in this case, they were toxic.

“This isn’t the first time that people have seen mixture toxicity, but it does remind us that two safe things mixed together doesn’t mean the mixture is safe.”

Elsewhere, CHE-backed researchers at New York University (NYU) recently discovered new molecular properties of water.

Liquid water is known as an excellent transporter of its own autoionisation products – the charged species when a water molecule (H20) is split into protons (H+) and hydroxide ions (OH-). Indeed, life itself would not be possible without this property.

For nearly a century, it was thought that the mechanisms by which water transports H+ and OH- ions were mirror images, except for the directions of the hydrogen bonds in the process.

However, state-of-the-art theoretical models predicted a fundamental asymmetry in the mechanisms. If correct, this could allow systems to be tailored to favour one ion over another – but the experimental proof was hard to come by because of the difficulty in observing the two iconic species.

A team at NYU, led by Professor Alexei Jerschow successfully demonstrated the asymmetry with a novel experiment whereby water was cooled to its so-called temperature of maximum density – a point just above freezing at which asymmetry was expected to be strongest.

Using nuclear magnetic resonance methods, the researchers showed the difference in lifetimes of the two ions reaches a maximum value (the greater the lifetime, the slower the transport). By accentuating the difference in lifetimes, the asymmetry became clear.

“The study of water’s molecular properties is of intense interest due to its central role in enabling physiological processes and its ubiquitous nature,” says Professor Jerschow.

“The new finding is quite surprising and may enable deeper understanding of water’s properties as well as its role as a fluid in many of nature’s phenomena.”

Other projects backed by CHE funding have ranged from ranged from the discovery of a previously unknown mechanism in DNA that governs whether viruses that infect the body will quickly kill their hosts or remain latent inside the cell to the synthesis of a new epilepsy medication that replaces the precious metals rhodium and dichloromethane with the much greener cobalt and methanol and the discovery of new fatty acids in vegetable oils – the first such discovery since the 1970s.

The CHE’s work certainly supports the wider aims of the NSF, which was established in 1950 to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defence”.

With an annual budget of $7.5 billion, the NSF supports around a quarter of all federally supported basic research conducted in America’s colleges and universities.

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