Subhadip Senapati, Senior Research Associate, Chemistry, Prayoga Institute of Educational Research - firstname.lastname@example.org
We all love stories! Don’t we?
Yes, indeed we do. In fact, there have been numerous interesting stories revolving around science right from the beginning of scientific practice to this modern age. These stories involve funny anecdotes from an eccentric(!) scientist’s life, to motivation behind a particular scientific discovery or some accidental discoveries that significantly altered the course of human civilization. Yes, quite a few of the scientific discoveries or invention were purely accidental and unintended, but those changed our lives and have left long-lasting impact. In this article, we are going to celebrate some of those fascinating discoveries - some intended, some unintended. But all of them have one thing in common – discovery through eating/drinking!
A lot of people nowadays are very careful about their calorie intake and follow strict diet. Saccharin, the artificial sweetener, is about 400 times sweeter than regular sugar, yet, it doesn’t have any carbs or calories. Our body remains unaffected, as it cannot even metabolize saccharin. So, saccharin quickly became very popular alternative to sugar among people who were cautious about calorie intake or were diabetic; and during world war 2, its demand skyrocketed due to the worldwide shortage of sugar. Even now, saccharin is routinely used in diet drinks, or low-calorie candies, cookies, biscuits. Funnily enough, saccharin was discovered in one of the most bizarre ways possible.
Figure 1. A) commercially available saccharin, used as no-calorie sugar substitute, B) molecular structure of saccharin (benzoic sulfinide), C) Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg, who disovered saccharin
In 1878, Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg was analysing the chemical compounds present in coal tar at Johns Hopkins University. Tired and hungry, he went home, completely forgot to wash his hands before eating his dinner (no covid-19 infection to worry about at that time!). He soon noticed that every food item tasted equally sweet, and so did his fingers. He realized it must have come from some chemical he was working with and he went back to the lab to find out. Excited, he started tasting all the chemicals he was working with, one by one (a big no-no for us, the mere mortals. Tasting unknown chemicals is dangerous and could be fatal, more often than not!). After finishing the ‘appetizers’, when he moved the ‘main course’, i.e., a beaker full of boiled mixture of sulfobenzoic acid, phosphorus chloride and ammonia, he found origin of the sweet taste – a compound called benzoic sulfinide formed from that mixture. Fahlberg was familiar with the compound even before that day, but never felt the urge to taste it [1,2]. Within the next few years, saccharin entered the food and beverage market and has remained popular even after nearly 140 years.
Discovery of ulcer causing bacteria
If discovery of saccharin was completely unintentional, it was a different story for ulcer causing bacteria – Helicobacter pylori. More than an accident, it was a case of willingness to take risk based on informed decision and intuition. Before 1980, it was widely believed that stomach ulcer occurred because of stress, spicy food or excess gastric acids, and no one connected to it any pathogen. In 1981-82, two Australians, physician Barry Marshall and pathologist Robin Warren found the presence of H. pylori in every stomach ulcer patient they studied. They immediately hypothesized that the root cause of stomach ulcer and cancer is the presence of this bacteria, but no one believed them. Their failed effort to cause stomach ulcer in piglets by injecting H. pylori didn’t help the matter either. Frustrated and dejected, Marshall decided to take matter in his own hand, or in this case, his own stomach. He drank cultured broth of H. pylori (!!!) with the hope of developing symptoms for stomach ulcer within a year. To his surprise, he started to show symptoms within just a few days, and differences in endoscopic result before and after drinking the bacterial broth clearly showed the development of gastritis, precursor of stomach ulcer. “Everyone was against me, but I knew I was right” – Marshall said later. Was it dangerous? Yes. But this discovery was key to the diagnosis, detection and cure to be developed in the years to come. ‘Icing on the bacterial broth’ moment came when both Marshall and Warren were awarded Nobel prize in physiology and medicine in 2005 for this discovery [3,4].
Figure 2. A) cartoon depiction of H. pylori growing in stomach, B) Australian physician Barry Marshal, who drank cultured broth of H. pylori, C) Australian pathologist Robin Warren, who was instrumental in finding the role of H. pylori in stomach ulcer and cancer
Legend has it
There is an interesting, yet undocumented story about the discovery of quinine, the centuries-old remedy for malaria. A feverish Andean man (native of Andes mountain, South America), suffering from malaria, was lost in the jungle. He was weak and thirsty, and drank from a pool of water in the middle of the forest. The water was bitter, and he was scared thinking that he had drunk something poisonous secreted from the quina-quina trees (cinchona) surrounding that pool. Instead, moments later, he started to feel better and his fever was gone. He found his way back to his village, told others about the ‘miraculous’ tree . Ever since then, local villagers started to use quina-quina bark to treat fever caused by malaria. Later, Countess of Chinchon was cured from fever while in Peru, after drinking the extract from quina-quina bark. Upon returning to Europe, she introduced the bark there to treat malaria, and by 1681, it was widely accepted as a remedy for malaria. Around 1820, the active compound ‘quinine’ was isolated from the bark, and in 1944, it was possible to synthesize quinine in the lab .
Figure 3. A) quina-quina tree (cinchona tree), B) barks of quina-quina tree, used to extract quinine, remedy for malaria, C) molecular structure of quinine
As it can be seen, all these path-breaking discoveries were possible only because these dedicated scientists were willing to risk their health or even life to discover something that would tremendously impact human society. Their never-satisfied appetite for scientific advancement and endless pursuit of knowledge are exemplary and something we all can learn from. In fact, these are just a few examples from numerous scientific discoveries, where science has benefited because the scientists were willing to take additional risks. But as a general rule of thumb, it is perhaps never a good idea to taste unknown chemicals or biological samples! In fact, there are quite a few instances where things didn’t go as planned when scientists experimented on themselves, and it turned out to be life-threatening and fatal. But those are the stories for another day!
1. Saccharin, Molecule of the week, American Chemical Society, July 2019
2. Jesse Hicks, The Pursuit of Sweet, Distillations (Science History), May 2010, https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/the-pursuit-of-sweet
3. Barry Marshall, Robin Warren, Unidentified curved bacilli in the stomach of patients with gastritis and peptic ulceration, The Lancet, 1984, 323, 1311-1315
4. Barry Marshall, Paul Adams, Helicobacter pylori: A Nobel pursuit? Can JGastroenterol. 2008, 22, 895–896
5. Achan et al, Quinine, an old anti-malarial drug in a modern world: role in the treatment of malaria, Malar J. 2011, 10: 144, 1-12
Dagani, R., Quinine. Chemical & Engineering News. 2005 (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/83/8325/8325quinine.html)