Wednesday, October 15, 2014


From A Dictionary of Symbols by Juan Eduardo Cirlot (translated by Jack Sage):
In astrology they are called ‘terrestrial’ or ‘subterranean planets’, because of the analogous correspondences between the planets and the metals. For this reason astrologers consider that there are only seven metals (influenced by the same number of spheres), which does not mean that mankind during the astrobiological period did not recognize more. As Piobb has pointed out, some engineers have noted that the seven planetary metals make up a series which is applicable to the system of the twelve polygons. But, apart from the theory of correspondences, the metals symbolize cosmic energy in solidified form and, in consequence, the libido. On this basis, Jung has asserted that the base metals are the desires and the lusts of the flesh. Extracting the quintessence from these metals, or transmuting them into higher metals, is equivalent to setting creative energy free from the fetters of the sense world, a process identical with what esoteric tradition and astrology regard as liberation from the ‘planetary influences’. The metals can be grouped within a progressive ‘series’ in which each metal displays its hierarchical superiority over the one preceding it, with gold as the culminating point of the progression. This is why, in certain rites, the neophyte is required to divest himself of his ‘metals’ — coins, keys, trinkets — because they are symbolic of his habits, prejudices and characteristics, etc. We, for our part, however, are inclined to believe that in each particular pairing of planet with metal (as Mars with iron) there is an essential element of the ambitendent, in that its positive quality tends one way and its negative defect tends the other. Molten metal is an alchemic symbol expressing the coniunctio oppositorum (the conjunction of fire and water), related to mercury, Mercury and Plato’s primordial, androgynous being. And at the same time, the solid or ‘closed’ properties of matter emphasize its symbolism as a liberator — hence the connexion with Hermes the psychopomp <...> . The correspondences between the planets and the metals, from inferior to superior, are: Saturn — lead, Jupiter — tin, Mars — iron, Venus — copper, Mercury — mercury, Moon — silver, Sun — gold.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Pseudomonas fluorescens PhoX

Alkaline phosphatases (EC occur widely in nature and are found in all three domains of life [1]. The Escherichia coli PhoA enzyme has been extensively studied whereas PhoX family of alkaline phosphatases are only minimally characterised and show no sequence similarity to other phosphotransfer enzymes. Yong et al. [2] determined high-resolution crystal structures for native PhoX from Pseudomonas fluorescens [3] and for its complexes with phosphate [4], a nonhydrolysable ATP analogue adenosine-5′-[β,γ-methylene]triphosphate (AMP-PCP) [5], and the putative transition-state mimic vanadate [6]. The active site contains two antiferromagnetically coupled ferric ions (Fe3+), three calcium ions (Ca2+), and an oxo group bridging one Ca2+ and two Fe3+ ions.

Cartoon representation of P. fluorescens PhoX crystal structure.
The PhoX active site containing bound phosphate [1, Fig. 2c].
A model for the catalytic mechanism of PhoX [1, Fig. 3d].
The transition state is indicated with the double dagger (‡) symbol.
  1. Millán, J.L. (2006) Alkaline Phosphatases: Structure, substrate specificity and functional relatedness to other members of a large superfamily of enzymes. Purinergic Signalling 2, 335–341.
  2. Yong, S.C., Roversi, P., Lillington, J., Rodriguez, F., Krehenbrink, M., Zeldin, O.B., Garman, E.F., Lea, S.M. and Berks, B.C. (2014) A complex iron-calcium cofactor catalyzing phosphotransfer chemistry. Science 345, 1170—1173.
  3. PDB:4A9V
  4. PDB:4ALF
  5. PDB:4AMF
  6. PDB:3ZWU

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ogres are not like cakes

I was intrigued by the article in New Scientist which starts with the question, “Do you speak chemistry?” [1]. So much that I asked my friend to send me the original paper [2] authored by the Bartosz Grzybowski group of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. It is a curious reading.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the analogies. I love the analogies. If the linguistic analogy works for chemistry, it’s fine by me. As long as everybody understands that it is just an analogy.

The authors try to “demonstrate that a natural language such as English and organic chemistry have the same structure in terms of the frequency of, respectively, text fragments and molecular fragments”. How do they do that? They start by looking at the maximum common substrings (MCS) found in 100 sentences randomly chosen from English Wikipedia.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most common fragment of the sentences is “e”, followed by “a” and “o”.
That is surprising to me though, considering that only “a” is a word in English. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened to be Spanish Wikipedia. Are the authors talking about letter frequency per chance? But the “top three” letters in English (from most to least common) are known to be E, T, A while in Spanish they are E, A, O. Anyway, they show that the distribution of the fragments, whatever they are, follows the power law. Then they show that the distribution of the common molecular fragments, derived from the corpus of organic molecules, also follows the power law. Big deal: so do the earthquake magnitudes, populations of cities and stock market crashes [3]. Cadeddu et al. do not seem to be bothered with that at all:
We have just shown that there exists a set of molecular fragments with which organic molecules can be described akin to a language.
So far so bad; whether you are a linguist, a computational chemist or an organic chemist, both methodology and conclusions of this paper are bound to make you cringe. So, my immediate reaction was to dismiss it altogether. Ogres are not like cakes. Organic molecules are not like a language. End of story.

But could it be that I am missing something? On the one hand, the language of chemistry — whether we are talking trivial names, systematic names, or graphical diagrams — is very much like any other language: a system of communication. On the other hand, the molecules themselves are not. Unless they are the information macromolecules. The message encoded in a single DNA molecule can be very much abstracted from its chemical structure. Without any doubt, genetic code is a communication system, therefore it is a language, although not man-made.

It’s interesting that the authors view organic molecules as “sentences” rather than “words”; the latter would be the nomenclaturist’s approach. I guess it depends on your taste, or language preferences. Most systematic chemical names look alien in English but would fit rather nicely in German or Finnish. I personally view any chemical name as a noun phrase describing a corresponding molecular entity; a molecular entity itself is not a noun phrase. However, in natural languages, there rarely is a confusion regarding the boundaries of a word:

a word is the smallest element that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content (with literal or practical meaning).
On the contrary, Grzybowski’s “words” are the molecular fragments which do not exist in isolation. It is also worth noting that in the world of biopolymers, say nucleic acids, each monomer (as complex as any of Grzybowski’s “sentences”), is often represented as a letter, while an entire bacterial genome (still a single DNA molecule) could be considered a War and Peace (or Crime and Punishment).

Cadeddu et al. further claim that linguistic approach identifies the symmetry/repeat units in molecules such as α-cyclodextrin and porphyrin:

We emphasize that this is not a small feat given we have not even considered any (x, y, z) coordinates of the atoms making up these molecules and performed no linear-algebra analyses to find symmetries which, incidentally, can be a computationally intensive procedure involving manipulation of matrices.
I find this modest remark regarding the size of the “feat” within the body of a scientific article in a respectable journal really cute. Are the authors even aware that there are chemical similarity/substructure search engines? You don’t need atomic coordinates to identify the fragments with the same connectivity.

Which brings me to the final point. What is the “chemical linguistics” anyway? If the “words” of chemistry, as postulated in [2], are nothing else but molecular fragments, or substructures, then the chemoinformaticians were doing the substructure search of chemical databases for donkey’s years without knowing that it is called chemical linguistics. I am aware of completely different use of this term in a sense “mining of natural language texts for chemical information” [4, 5]. This latter use is well-established and I think applying the name “chemical linguistics” to unrelated area will only confuse everybody.

  1. Aron, J. (2014) Language of chemistry is unveiled by molecular make-up. New Scientist no. 2981, p. 8.
  2. Cadeddu, A., Wylie, E.K., Jurczak, J., Wampler-Doty, M. and Grzybowski, B.A. (2014) Organic chemistry as a language and the implications of chemical linguistics for structural and retrosynthetic analyses. Angewandte Chemie 126, 8246—8250.
  3. Buchanan, M. (2000) Ubiquity, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London.
  4. Goebels, L., Grotz, H., Lawson, A.L., Roller, S. and Wisniewski, J. (2005) Method and software for extracting chemical data. Patent DE 102005020083 A1.
  5. Day, N.E., Corbett, P.T. and Murray-Rust, P. (2007) Semantic chemical publishing. ACS National Meeting #233, Chicago.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

F420-reducing [NiFe]-hydrogenase at 1.7 Å

The F420-reducing [NiFe]-hydrogenase (FrhABG; EC catalyses the reversible redox reaction between coenzyme F420 and H2. FrhABG is a group 3 [NiFe]-hydrogenase with a dodecameric quaternary structure recently revealed by high-resolution cryo-electron microscopy [1]. Vitt et al. report the crystal structure of FrhABG from Methanothermobacter marburgensis at 1.7 Å resolution [2, 3] and compare it with the structures of group 1 [NiFe]-hydrogenases, the only previously structurally characterised group.

  1. Allegretti, M., Mills, D.J., McMullan, G., Kühlbrandt, W. and Vonck, J. (2014) Atomic model of the F420-reducing [NiFe] hydrogenase by electron cryo-microscopy using a direct electron detector. eLife 3, e01963.
  2. Vitt, S., Ma, K., Warkentin, E., Moll, J., Pierik, A.J., Shima, S. and Ermler, U. (2014) The F420-reducing [NiFe]-hydrogenase complex from Methanothermobacter marburgensis, the first X-ray structure of a group 3 family member. J. Mol. Biol. 426, 2813—2826.
  3. PDB:4OMF

Monday, June 30, 2014

Phycocyanin against Alzheimer’s?

Could a light-harvesting protein phycocyanin be used as a novel drug against Alzheimer’s disease (AD) [1, 2]?

In the present study, intact hexameric phycocyanin was isolated and crystallized from the cyanobacterium Leptolyngbya sp. N62DM, and the structure was solved to a resolution of 2.6 Å. Molecular docking studies show that the phycocyanin αβ-dimer interacts with the enzyme β-secretase, which catalyzes the proteolysis of the amyloid precursor protein to form plaques. The molecular docking studies suggest that the interaction between phycocyanin and β-secretase is energetically more favorable than previously reported inhibitor-β-secretase interactions. Transgenic Caenorhabditis elegans worms, with a genotype to serve as an AD-model, were significantly protected by phycocyanin. Therefore, the present study provides a novel structure-based molecular mechanism of phycocyanin-mediated therapy against AD.
  1. Singh, N.K., Hasan, S.S., Kumar, J., Raj, I., Pathan, A.A., Parmar, A., Shakil, S., Gourinath, S. and Madamwar D. (2014) Crystal structure and interaction of phycocyanin with β-secretase: A putative therapy for Alzheimer's disease. CNS Neurol. Disord. Drug Targets 13, 691—698.
  2. PDB:4L1E

Saturday, May 24, 2014

[Fe3S4] ferredoxin from Rhodopseudomonas palustris

The crystal structure of a novel [Fe3S4] ferredoxin associated with CYP194A4 from Rhodopseudomonas palustris has been solved at 2.15 Å resolution [1—3]. The ferredoxin, HaPuxC, contains an atypical CXXHXXC(X)nCP iron-sulphur cluster-binding motif. HaPuxC is the first P450 electron-transfer partner of this type to be structurally characterised.

  1. Zhang, T., Zhang, A., Bell, S.G., Wong, L.-L. and Zhou, W. (2014) The structure of a novel electron-transfer ferredoxin from Rhodopseudomonas palustris HaA2 which contains a histidine residue in its iron-sulfur cluster-binding motif. Acta Crystallographica D70, 1453—1464.
  2. PDB:4ID8
  3. PDB:4OV1

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Tetracalcium octachromium(3+) strontium octacarbonate hexadecahydroxide sulfate pentaicosahydrate

The Polar Bear peninsula in Western Australia is one of the many places on this planet I never heard before. The reason I mention it now is that a new mineral named putnisite was discovered there, and this mineral caused a bit of a stir recently, for being “completely unique and unrelated to anything”. In fact, if you Google “Polar Bear peninsula”, all you find is putnisite.

In 2007, specimens of an unknown mineral forming purple crystals (a) were collected at the Polar Bear peninsula while prospecting for nickel and gold. The specimens were eventually forwarded to Peter Elliott, a research associate with the South Australian Museum, for examination.


Elliott et al. [2] report the composition and crystal structure of this unique mineral, named in honour of mineralogists Christine and Andrew Putnis of the Institut für Mineralogie, Universtität Münster, Germany. The compositional name for putnisite I come up with is “tetracalcium octachromium(3+) strontium octacarbonate hexadecahydroxide sulfate pentaicosahydrate”. Curiously, Mindat and Mineralienatlas give the molecular formula containing only 23 molecules of water.


The crystal structure (b) was determined from single-crystal X-ray diffraction data. Cr(OH)4O2 octahedra (red) link by edge-sharing to form an eight-membered ring. At the centre of each ring lies a decacoordinated Sr2+ cation (purple). The rings are decorated by carbonate triangles (green), each of which links by corner-sharing to two Cr(OH)4O2 octahedra. Rings are linked by Ca(H2O)4O4 polyhedra (blue) to form a sheet parallel to the (100) plane. Adjacent sheets are joined along the [100] direction by corner-sharing sulfate tetrahedra (yellow).

  1. Mills, R. (2014) New mineral shows nature’s infinite variability.
  2. Elliott, P., Giester, G., Rowe, R. and Pring, A. (2014) Putnisite, SrCa4Cr3+8(CO3)8SO4(OH)16·25H2O, a new mineral from Western Australia: description and crystal structure. Mineralogical Magazine 78, 131—144.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Thermochromatium tepidum LH1—RC complex at 3.0 Å

The light-harvesting core antenna (LH1) and the reaction centre (RC) of purple photosynthetic bacteria form a supramolecular complex (LH1—RC) to use sunlight energy in a highly efficient manner. Niwa et al. [1—4] report the first near-atomic structure of a LH1—RC complex, namely that of a Ca2+-bound complex from Thermochromatium tepidum. The RC is surrounded by 16 heterodimers of the LH1 αβ-subunit that form a completely closed structure. The Ca2+ ions are located at the periplasmic side of LH1. Thirty-two bacteriochlorophyll a and sixteen spirilloxanthin molecules in the LH1 ring form an elliptical assembly.

  1. Niwa, S., Yu, L.-J., Takeda, K., Hirano, Y., Kawakami, T., Wang-Otomo, Z.-Y. and Miki, K. (2014) Structure of the LH1—RC complex from Thermochromatium tepidum at 3.0 Å. Nature 508, 228—232.
  2. PDB:3WMM
  3. PDB:3WMN
  4. PDB:3WMO

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Smell of pine vs climate change

That’s right: the smell of pine trees from boreal forests could mitigate the global warming — provided that the global warming doesn’t kill the forests first [1]. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs), responsible for the smell of pine, react with atmospheric oxygen to form aerosols. These aerosols scatter solar radiation and also act as cloud condensation nuclei, thereby affecting the Earth’s radiation balance. An international group including researchers from Finland, Germany, Denmark and USA has discovered a direct pathway leading from several biogenic VOCs, such as monoterpenes, to the formation of extremely low-volatility vapours (ELVOCs) [2].

These vapours form at significant mass yield in the gas phase and condense irreversibly onto aerosol surfaces to produce secondary organic aerosol, helping to explain the discrepancy between the observed atmospheric burden of secondary organic aerosol and that reported by many model studies. We further demonstrate how these low-volatility vapours can enhance, or even dominate, the formation and growth of aerosol particles over forested regions, providing a missing link between biogenic VOCs and their conversion to aerosol particles.

Structures of the main VOCs studied by Ehn et al. [2]

The air was sampled in Hyytiälä, Finland and the chamber experiments were conducted at the Jülich Research Centre in Germany.

  1. McGrath, M. Smell of forest pine can limit climate change. BBC News, 26 February 2014.
  2. Ehn, M., Thornton, J.A., Kleist, E., Sipilä, M., Junninen, J., Pullinen, I., Springer, M., Rubach, F., Tillmann, R., Lee, B., Lopez-Hilfiker, F., Andres, S., Acir, I.-H., Rissanen, M., Jokinen, T., Schobesberger, S., Kangasluoma, J., Kontkanen, J., Nieminen, T., Kurtén, T., Nielsen, L.B., Jørgensen, S., Kjaergaard, H.G., Canagaratna, M., Dal Maso, M.D., Berndt, T., Petäjä, T., Wahner, A., Veli-Matti Kerminen, V.-M., Kulmala, M., Worsnop, D.R., Wildt, J. and Mentel, T.F. (2014) A large source of low-volatility secondary organic aerosol. Nature 506, 476—479.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sodium chloride revisited

Everybody knows that the formula of sodium chloride is NaCl. Right? Right. But recently, the team of Artem Oganov at Stony Brook University have shown that there are other stable types of crystalline sodium chloride. They have predicted several thermodynamically stable compounds: Na3Cl, Na2Cl, Na3Cl2, NaCl3, and NaCl7. Moreover, by utilising high-pressure techniques, they synthesised cubic and orthorhombic NaCl3 and two-dimensional tetragonal Na3Cl [1, 2].

NaCl3 (space group Pm3n)
Na3Cl (space group P4/mmm)

“One of these materials — Na3Cl — has a fascinating structure”, says Oganov. “It is comprised of layers of NaCl and layers of pure sodium. The NaCl layers act as insulators; the pure sodium layers conduct electricity” [3].

  1. Zhang, W., Oganov, A.R., Goncharov, A.F., Zhu, Q., Boulfelfel, S.E., Lyakhov, A.O., Stavrou, E., Somayazulu, M., Prakapenka, V.B. and Konôpková, Z. (2013) Unexpected stable stoichiometries of sodium chlorides. Science 342, 1502—1505; arXiv:1310.7674v1
  2. Ibáñez Insa, J. (2013) Reformulating table salt under pressure. Science 342, 1459—1460.
  3. SBU team discovers new compounds that challenge the foundation of chemistry. Stony Brook University Newsroom, December 19, 2013.