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November 29, 2002

For more information on these science news and feature story tips, contact the public information officer listed at (703) 292-8070. Editor: Josh Chamot

U.S. Researchers May Provide Entrée into Coenzyme Q10 Market

Proponents of Coenzyme Q10 describe it as a "miracle nutrient" because of its potential to invigorate our cells, fight a variety of diseases, and perhaps even slow the aging process. However, U.S. production of the supplement has been stalled by the lack of an economical synthesis method to compete with patented techniques Japanese companies use.

Now, U.S. manufacturers may soon gain a foothold into the international CoQ10 market. In his laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara, NSF-sponsored chemist Bruce Lipshutz and his colleagues have found a successful way to economically synthesize the compound.

Researchers also call CoQ10 "ubiquinone" because it is ubiquitous in the body, appearing in every cell. But as the body ages, the body produces less of the substance. Preliminary studies suggest taking synthetic CoQ10 as a dietary supplement may help, possibly slowing the decline of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients, boosting immunity, improving respiration, and aiding in the fight against heart disease and cancer.

Currently, all available CoQ10 supplements are produced by Japanese companies that use a patented fermentation process. Other companies worldwide have been trying for years to develop a competing process to produce CoQ10, but previous methods were too lengthy or expensive to be economically feasible.

Lipshutz and laboratory co-workers Paul Mollard, Steven Pfeiffer and Will Chrisman kept costs down by using inexpensive ingredients -- including one compound derived from tobacco waste -- and by reducing the number of steps involved in making CoQ10. The result is a very short and efficient process for making CoQ10 in the laboratory that may finally make non-fermentative production of this supplement economical. Their results will be published in the December 4th issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Lipshutz hopes the new synthesis will allow American competition in the international CoQ10 market, which amounts to $90 million in Japan alone. In addition to being frugal, the team's new method allows them to produce a product that excludes the minor impurities that typically occur in the fermentation process. [Roberta Hotinski]

For more about the group's work, see:

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A Dim View of a Black Hole

view of the Milky Way (Size: 970KB)
Wide-angle view of the Milky Way in the direction of its center. The teapot of the constellation Sagittarius is in view. This image was taken at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chili, one of several observatories that make up the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), a national center for research in ground-based optical and infrared astronomy supported by National Science Foundation.
Select image for larger version
(Size: 970KB)

> Note About Images

When it comes to galactic centers, the core of our Milky Way isn't the brightest bulb on the tree. Astronomers have long been puzzled by the dimness of the area around the black hole in the heart of our galaxy compared to others in the universe.

Now, NSF-supported researcher Geoffrey Bower of the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues have finally solved the riddle of why our light is not so bright. While earlier studies have shown that the glow is caused by super-heated gasses careening into the black hole, researchers have found that our dim galactic center may be a result of limited amounts of plasma in the region, not a trapping of the plasma's energy. In future studies, their techniques may also be used to probe space near the surface of the black hole as a test of Einstein's theory of general relativity.

Scientists have long understood more luminous centers in other galaxies. As gas from surrounding stars is sucked toward a black hole, it encounters friction and heats up, like a meteor traveling through the Earth's atmosphere, until it becomes a super-hot phase called plasma. The more gas falling toward the black hole, the brighter the glow should be. Although energy cannot escape from a black hole's surface (the "event horizon"), the heat emitted before the plasma is engulfed can be detected by radio and X-ray telescopes on Earth.

The black hole at the center of our galaxy, located in the constellation Sagittarius and called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star"), is only about one-billionth as bright as it could be. Curiously, though, observations of the galactic center show there is plenty of gas to feed it.

To explain the discrepancy, scientists debated two possible ideas -- either abundant gas was not streaming toward the black hole to create plasma, or the gas was falling in but the plasma was failing to radiate as much heat as the researchers expected.

Bower approached the problem with Berkeley colleagues Don Backer and Melvyn Wright and Heino Falcke of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. Using an NSF-sponsored group of radio telescopes called the BIMA (for Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland Association) array, the researchers made precise measurements of the orientation of radio waves coming from Sagittarius A* to determine if it had changed since the start of the waves' journey at the galactic center about 25,000 years ago.

Travel through a magnetized plasma twists the radio waves' orientation, so the degree of change is a measure of how much plasma the waves traveled through as they left the galactic center. The measurements show relatively little twisting of the waves coming from Sagittarius A*, which means there was little plasma around the black hole when the waves left the area.

"It's rare that we have something that's so definitive," says Bower, "BIMA is unique in its ability to make these kinds of measurements with such high resolution."

Scientists at the Galactic Center Workshop in Kona, Hawaii, where Bower presented the work in early November, agreed that the new results show minimal plasma in the galactic center and thus minimal gas streaking toward the black hole.

Ramesh Narayan, an NSF-supported researcher and one of the chief proponents of the competing "inefficient radiation" theory, calls Bower's result a "solid, uncontroversial measurement" and added that "any way of getting around this argument would be far-fetched and contrived." He maintains that lower-than-expected radiation contributes to our galactic center's relative dullness, but agrees that the absence of plasma is the larger effect.

Bower says he and his collaborators would like to make further and even higher-resolution measurements on the radio waves emitted by black hole plasmas. The observations could provide a test of Einstein's theory of general relativity, which predicts that very massive objects like black holes will distort the space around them. The radiation the group observes provides one of the closest possible probes to the surface of a black hole and may give researchers a new view of extreme physics. [Roberta Hotinski]

For more information on the BIMA array see

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Increasing Nitrogen in Earth's Soils May Signal Global Changes

According to new research, the rapid increase of airborne nitrogen resulting from fossil-fuel combustion and crop fertilization, combined with carbon stored in Earth's soils, may change the rate of carbon dioxide (CO2) rising into the atmosphere.

About 300 times more carbon is stored in soils than is being put in the atmosphere by humans every year in the form of C02, and each year soils release about 20 times more carbon through decomposition than industrial activities.

"Decomposition is primarily balanced by plant growth, but increasing nitrogen falling on ecosystems could change that balance," said biologist Alan Townsend of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Townsend's new NSF-supported study shows tundra soils are unexpectedly sensitive to added nitrogen. The findings suggest that we need to understand how human-caused increases in nitrogen throughout the world might affect C02 storage areas, or sinks, on land, said Townsend.

The study area of nitrogen deposition is in the tundra at Niwot Ridge, around 30 miles west of Boulder, a Long-Term Ecological Research Site funded by the National Science Foundation. The big surprise is that many scientists believed soils would not respond much to changes in nitrogen.

Researchers believe that C02 in the atmosphere has risen by about one-third since the Industrial Revolution began in roughly 1760, contributing to a warming climate.

"One of our big concerns now is that we know the world's soils have at least 3 times more carbon than plants, and that increasing the nitrogen hitting these soils could change the size of that huge pool," said Townsend. "Since the pool is so large, even a small change could have a big effect on the atmosphere, and therefore future climate," he said.

Scientists have documented increases in C02 produced by human activity, and concluded that only about half of that amount is reaching the atmosphere, said Townsend. Therefore, he added, the carbon sinks on Earth in the world's vegetation, soils and oceans must be immense.

"If these sinks slow down - or turn off - in the near future, we could see much larger increases of atmospheric C02. If cold tundra soils are sensitive to nitrogen, it raises concerns about what might be happening in other, warmer parts of the world where things can change more rapidly," said Townsend.

Niwot Ridge is by no means unique, believes Townsend. "Nitrogen deposition is going up all over the world, especially throughout the United States, Europe and much of Asia. I think the problems we are seeing from the altered nitrogen cycle are worse than what we are seeing in climate change around the world, at least for now." [University of Colorado at Boulder via NSF]

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