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Science notes / Biology, physics

Germ warfare

Syphilis, we can handle. The common cold? You've got to wait it out. But that may be changing.

Until the middle of the 20th century, even a relatively minor wound could spell death because, until the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin, there was no reliable treatment for all kinds of bacterial infection. Today, scientists are hoping to create a similarly wide-sweeping treatment to knock out harmful viruses, including those that cause the common cold.

In "Germ Warfare," in the April issue of Wired magazine, Carl Zimmer tracks the efforts of three research teams that are targeting aspects of our own biology rather than the virus itself.

For instance, San Francisco-based researcher Vishwanath Lingappa is developing a drug that has demonstrated the ability to interfere with a protein necessary for the rabies virus to reproduce itself. The drug subtly alters the human cellular machinery to inhibit the disease's ability to mature.

Another drug would boost our immune system by creating synthetic versions of interferons -- the cellular devices that thwart viruses -- that are more efficient than those that occur naturally. There's also an effort to create a molecule that would lead a virus-infected cell to kill itself.

It will be some time before the drugs are ready to be used by human beings, but Zimmer notes that it took penicillin -- discovered in 1928 but not widely produced until 1943 -- a while to get off of the ground, too.

-- Washington Post

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Mayo's marvels

From a culinary standpoint, mayonnaise can prove divisive: Some people like it on sandwiches; others, on french fries. Many find it unpalatable. But from the perspective of French physicist Michel Mitov, it's the condiment of choice.

In his book "Sensitive Matter," he explains the complex series of interactions that take place in soft substances -- e.g., emulsions, gels and granular materials -- that we encounter every day. Why does champagne poured into a flute form bubbles? It has to do with carbon dioxide releasing itself from the liquid and aggregating toward microcrystals in the wine or cellulose from the towel used to dry the glass.

As for mayonnaise: It's made of oil and egg yolks, which are 50 percent water. Oil and water famously don't mix. So how can they combine to form mayonnaise? Because the yolk is also packed with lecithin molecules, which act as mediators linking the typically unfriendly substances together.

The science can get dense, but Mitov has a light touch, writing like the hip, pop-culture-loving chemistry teacher that you always wanted but never had.

-- Washington Post