2009 Science News of the Year: Molecules

Tangles of collagen IV chains link at globules via sulfur-nitrogen bonding (illustrated above). Credit: Courtesy of Science/AAAS
Tangles of collagen IV chains link at globules via sulfur-nitrogen bonding (illustrated above). Credit: Courtesy of Science/AAAS

New bond in the basement
Basements house hidden treasures — including a chemical bond never before seen in living things. Scientists have discovered that collagen fibers in the basement membrane — a tough, structural layer of cells that surrounds most tissues in animals — are connected by a sulfur-nitrogen bond (SN: 9/26/09, p. 5). Basement membranes anchor cells, provide a framework for developing tissues and blood vessels, and help regulate cell behavior and signaling. The discovery could help researchers understand collagen-related diseases and could lead to new tricks for attacking tumors, which get much of their heft from the basement membrane matrix. This bond “is the molecular fastener,” says Billy Hudson, director of the Center for Matrix Biology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville and leader of the new work. The team’s analyses suggest that the bond may have developed early in animal evolution, sometime after the sponge and jellyfish lineages diverged.

RNA rising
Scientists map a series of simple, efficient reactions that could have led to RNA molecules (one nucleotide illustrated above) and may have gotten life on Earth going (SN: 6/6/09, p. 5).

Meta me
Researchers have found a simple way to steer molecules into the coveted meta position on an aromatic ring (SN Online: 3/19/09).

Double bonding
New work describes the nature of the bond between two beryllium atoms: a partnership that has long eluded chemists (SN: 6/20/09, p. 10).

Tin breaks carbon’s rules
Scientists attach a simple hydrocarbon to triple-bonded tin atoms, violating a well-established set of organic chemistry rules (SN: 10/24/09, p. 13).

Comet bears precursor
A building block of proteins found in samples from an icy comet’s halo suggests the ingredients of life could have hitched a ride to the early Earth (SN: 9/12/09, p. 8).

Pass the electrons, please
Green fluorescent protein, the darling of cell biologists and biomedical researchers, gives up electrons when it fluoresces, a study finds. The work may provide clues to the protein’s original job (SN Online: 4/26/09).

Leptin leads to large litters
Pregnant hamsters receiving the appetite-regulating hormone leptin had bigger litters, suggesting the hormone plays an important role in physiological investment in offspring (SN: 9/26/09, p. 14).

Chemicals stick around
Women who have trouble getting pregnant are more likely to have high blood concentrations of certain chemicals used in nonstick surfaces in their blood than are those who become pregnant within the first month of trying (SN Online: 2/3/09).

Come hither
Researchers have pinpointed the molecule one plant uses to attract pollen tubes (above) to its ovaries (SN: 4/11/09, p. 10).

Ice hits new low
Nanosized chips of ice melt at -180° Celsius, much lower than scientists had thought (SN Online: 7/10/09).

Brilliant blue’s benefits
A chemical cousin of the blue dye found in Gatorade blocks a molecule that kills nerves following spinal cord injury (SN: 8/29/09, p. 10).

Yes and no
Turning off pheromones can make male and female fruit flies super-sexy to male flies, even males of another species. The work suggests that these chemicals can serve as back-off signals, and it may help researchers understand how the flies distinguish their species from another (SN: 11/7/09, p. 10).

Caught in the act
Researchers have developed a new way to see where a protein is active in cells in a living animal (SN: 7/4/09, p. 10).

Glow the way you want
A study finds that chemicals, rather than nerve cells, can control bioluminescence in fish. Three hormones act as on-off switches for glow-in-the-dark lantern sharks (SN: 12/5/09, p. 12).

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