Social media has expanded to reach an unlikely new target: molecules. Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have created networks of molecular data similar to Facebook's recently debuted graph search feature. While graph search would allow Facebook users to find all their New York-living, beer-drinking buddies in one quick search, the NIST-designed networks could help scientists rapidly sift through enormous chemical and biological data sets to find substances with specific properties, for example all 5-ring chemicals with an affinity for enzyme A. The search approach could help speed up the development of new drugs and designer materials.
The NIST team will present their research at the upcoming American Crystallographic Association Meeting, held July 20-24 in Honolulu.
Choosing the Right Words
Molecules don't maintain their own online profiles, so a key challenge for the NIST research team was to develop a standard language for scientists to describe their research subjects. For example, one research group may describe a material's properties as glassy while another team might use the word vitreous, even though the two words have the same meaning, explained Ursula Kattner, a researcher in the Materials Science and Engineering Division at NIST.
One approach to the problem could be to define a standard set of words, but NIST scientists opted for a more flexible approach that could evolve with time. The search language they developed is similar to Indo-European languages like Sanskrit and Latin, which use short roots to build words based on a set of rules, said Talapady Bhat, a research chemist at NIST who has been leading the effort to develop a shared vocabulary for NIST's scientific databases. He gives the example of the Sanskrit word "yoga," which is based on the roots "Y(uj)", which means to join, "O", which means creator, God, or brain, and "Ga", which means motion or initiation.
|Contact: Catherine Meyers|
American Institute of Physics