Chemical jigsaw puzzles: how do chemists identify molecules?

Front cover of Great ExplanationsA quick thing before I get into this month’s chemistry ramble: I’m guessing that you, lovely reader, enjoy reading about science stuff. Especially stuff written by an amazing crowd of hard-working science communicators, one of whom is yours truly. So, please consider spreading the word about this awesome book: Great Explanations. Or even better, pledge! There are some fabulous rewards at the different pledge levels. Either way, thank you x

Okay, back to it! Recently, a bit of an argument blew up on Twitter regarding what is, and isn’t, in covid vaccinations. The particular substance du jour being graphene oxide. The @TakeThatChem account pointed out that one of the sources being touted by some as ‘evidence’ for its presence (the article in question was by Robert O Young, remember him? Yes, the one that did actual jail time) didn’t describe the use of any sort of technique that could identify graphene oxide. Which, just to be clear, is absolutely not an ingredient in covid vaccinations.

The debate culminated with questions about how, exactly, scientists do identify substances on the molecular level. @TakeThatChem wondered if one of the users who had become embroiled in the debate even understood how a chemist might work out a molecule’s structure, and then posted an image.

Screenshot of tweet by @TakeThatChem showing an NMR spectrum (link in text)

This tweet illustrated a technique that can be used to identify molecules.

British students of chemistry first meet images like this somewhere around the age of 17–18, so although this is somewhat advanced, it’s still essentially school-level. Which means that for a chemist, it’s one of those things that’s so familiar that, half the time, we probably forget that the rest of the world will have absolutely no idea what it is.

But for those that have never studied A level chemistry or similar: what is it?

The answer is that it’s a proton NMR, or nuclear magnetic resonance, spectrum. Now, NMR is quite tricky. Bear with me, I’m about to try and explain it in a paragraph…

Here goes: you know magnets? And how, if you put one magnet near another magnet, it moves? Now imagine that certain types of atomic nuclei are basically tiny magnets. If you put them in a really powerful magnetic field, they sort of move. If you then alter that magnetic field, they move as the field varies. A computer records and analyses those changes, and spits out a graph that looks like that one back there – which chemists call a spectrum.

Photo of MRI equipment

Medical MRIs use essentially the same technology as the one used to generate the spectrum

Did I nail it? There’s a lot more to this, not surprisingly. In particular, radio waves are involved. My quick and dirty explanation is the equivalent of describing a car as a box on wheels – it’s broadly true from a distance if you squint a bit, but if you said it in the presence of a qualified mechanic they’d wince and start muttering words like ‘head gasket’ and ‘brake discs’ and ‘you do know this is a diesel engine, yes?’

Anyway, it’ll do for now. If you’re studying NMR at a more advanced level, take a look at this episode of Crash Course Organic Chemistry written by… someone called Kat Day. No idea who that is 😉

The same technique, by the way, is used in medicine – but there you know it as MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging. It turns out that if you shove a human (or pretty much anything that contains a lot of carbon-based molecules) into a powerful magnetic field, the atomic nuclei do their thing. You might imagine that having all your atoms do some sort of cha-cha would hurt, but no – as anyone who’s ever had an MRI will attest, it’s mostly just very loud and a bit dull. The end result is an image with different contrast for different types of tissue. Fatty tissue, for example, tends to show up as areas of brightness, while bone tends to look darker – so it’s useful for diagnosing all sorts of problems.

Photo of jigsaw pieces

Interpreting a proton NMR spectrum can be a bit like looking at a jigsaw pieces

But back to chemistry. Chemists, preferring a simpler life (haha), are often working with single substances. Or at least trying to. If we imagine a molecule as a picture, looking at a proton NMR spectrum is a bit like looking at a mixed-up jigsaw puzzle of that picture. Each individual piece – or peak – in the spectrum represents an atom or a group of atoms.

Each piece tells you something and, at the same time, it also tells you about the bits that are joined to it. In the same way that you might look at a jigsaw piece and think, ‘well, this has a sticky-out bit so the piece that goes next to it must have an inny-bit,’ chemists look at a spectrum and say, ‘well, this bit looks like this, so its carbon atom must be attached to group of atoms like that.’

Okay, so what do the pieces in the spectrum @TakeThatChem posted show us? Well, reading spectra takes practice but, like most things, if you do that practice, after a while you get into the habit of spotting things straight away.

For example, it’s fairly obvious to me that whatever-it-is it probably has a carboxylic acid (COOH) group, and it definitely has a benzene ring. I can also see that the benzene ring has things bonded to opposite points, in other words, if you numbered the carbons in the ring from 1 to 6, it has things attached at carbon 1 and carbon 4. There’s a chain of carbons, which is branched, and there’s another CH3 group somewhere. To get more precise I’d have to look more carefully at the integrals (the differently-sized ∫ symbols over the peaks), hunt for a data sheet and study the scale on the horizontal axis along the bottom.

Photo of white pills

The spectrum is of a common drug substance, but which one…

My brain got as far as ‘hm, maybe it’s aspirin, oh no, it can’t be, because…’ before I came across the already-posted answer. I won’t give it away – spoilers, sweetie – but let’s just say it’s a molecule not a million miles different from aspirin.

So yes, chemists do have the means to identify individual molecules, but it requires a fair bit of knowledge and training to both carry out the techniques and to interpret the results. Despite what Hollywood might have us believe, we don’t (yet) have a machine that intones ‘this material is approximately 40% isobutylphenylpropionic acid, captain’ when you plop a sample into it.

The fact that real chemistry (and science in general) is not simple is precisely why pseudoscience peddled by the likes of Robert O Young is so appealing: it’s nice and easy, it follows a sort of ‘common sense’ narrative, it’s not swathed in all sorts of technical language. Anyone can read it and, without any other training, feel as if they understand it perfectly.

None of us knows what we don’t know. If someone comes along with an easy explanation, it’s tempting to believe it – particularly if they go on to play into our anxieties and tell us what we were hoping to hear.

Which brings me to a thread by the lovely Dr Ben Janaway, one tweet of which said, extremely eloquently:

Please do not harass [people protesting covid vaccines]. Please do not blame them. My education is a privilege they have not been afforded. They do not lack intelligence, they lack being taught how to make sense of very complicated things, most of it hidden. What can we do, listen and talk.

Photo of a facemask, syringe and vaccine vials

Please get vaccinated

His point is a good one. All we can do is keep spreading the word as clearly as possible and just hope that, maybe, it will change one mind somewhere. Because maybe that mind will change another, and maybe sense will spread.

Take care, stay safe, and get vaccinated. Get your flu jab, too, if it’s that time of year in your part of the world.


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Do you want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not take a look at my fiction blog: the fiction phial? You can also find me doing various flavours of editor-type-stuff at the horror podcast, PseudoPod.org – so head over there, too!

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Neem: nice, nasty or… not sure?

A few days ago it was sunny and slightly breezy outside (yes, it’s August, but I live in the UK – this isn’t as common as you might imagine) and I thought, I should make the most of this and do something about my orchids.

Now, anyone that reads this blog regularly will know that my Dad is a horticulturist. I, however, am not. My fascination with bright colours, interesting smells and complicated naming conventions went down the chemistry route. But I am, oddly, quite good with Phalaenopsis, aka, moth orchids. I don’t really know why, or how, but I seem to have come to some sort of agreement with the ones that live on my kitchen windowsill. It goes along the lines of: I’ll water you once a week, and you make flowers a couple of times a year, and we’ll otherwise leave each other alone, okay?

Scale bugs secrete honeydew, which encourages the growth of sooty moulds

Well, this was fine for years, until we somehow acquired an infestation of scale bugs. These tiny but extremely annoying pests feed by sucking sap from leaves of plants, and they excrete a sticky substance called honeydew. Trust me, it’s not as nice as it sounds. Firstly, it really is sticky, and makes a horrible mess not just of the orchid leaves, but also the area around the plants.

Then it turns out that certain types of mould just love this stuff, so you end up with black spots on the leaves. And, not surprisingly, all this weakens the plant.

So, what’s the answer? Well, there are several. But the one I tend to default to is neem oil.

This stuff is a vegetable oil from the seeds of the Azadirachta indica, or neem, tree. It has a musty, nutty sort of smell, and is fairly easy to buy.

It’s indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and has been historically important in traditional medicine. In fact, The Sanskrit name of this evergreen tree is ‘Arishtha’, which means ‘reliever of sickness’.

So it’s a natural vegetable oil and people have been using it as a remedy for thousands of years – must be totally safe, right? Right?

Well… I’ve said it before, but some of the very best horribly toxic things are entirely natural, and neem is yet another example. Ingestion of significant quantities can cause metabolic acidosis (finally, something that really does have the potential to change blood pH! Er… but not… in a good way), kidney failure, seizures, and brain damage in children. Skin contact can cause contact dermatitis. It’s been shown to work as a contraceptive and, more problematically, it’s a known abortifacient (causes miscarriage).

Neem oil is easy to buy, but it needs to be handled with caution

All this said, as always, the dose make the poison.

One case study in the Journal of The Association of Physicians of India reported on a 36-year-old man who swallowed 30–50 ml (about three tablespoons) of neem oil, in the hope of treating the corns on his feet. As far as I can tell, it didn’t help his corns. It did cause vomiting, drowsiness, a dangerous drop in blood pH and seizures. There’s no specific antidote for neem poisoning, but the hospital managed his symptoms. Luckily, despite the hammering his kidneys undoubtedly took, he didn’t need dialysis, and was discharged from hospital after just over a week.

Now, okay, you’re unlikely to accidentally swallow three tablespoons of any oil, especially not neem which does have quite a strong, not entirely pleasant, smell and (reportedly – I haven’t tried for obvious reasons) a bitter taste. But nevertheless, it’s wise to be cautious, particularly around children who have a smaller body mass and therefore are much more likely to suffer serious effects – up to and including death. In one reported case, a mother gave a 3-month-old child a teaspoon of neem oil in the hope of curing his indigestion – fortunately he survived, but not without some seriously scary symptoms.

Nimbin, a chemical found in neem oil, is reported to have all sorts of beneficial effects [image source]

Okay, so those are the dangers. Let’s talk chemistry. The Pakistani organic chemist Salimuzzaman Siddiqui is thought to be the first scientist to formally investigate the various compounds in neem oil. In 1942 he extracted three compounds, and identified nimbidin as the main antibacterial substance in neem. He was awarded an OBE in 1946 for his discoveries.

I will confess, at this point, to running into a little bit of confusion with the nomenclature. Nimbidin is described, in some places at least, as a mixture of compounds (collectively, tetranortriterpenes) rather than a single molecule. But either way, it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties – at least in rats.

Another of the probably-mostly-good substances in neem is nimbin: a triterpenoid which is reported to have a whole range of positive properties, including acting as an anti-inflammatory, an antipyretic, a fungicide, an antiseptic and even as an antihistamine. Interestingly, I went looking for safety data on nimbin, and I couldn’t find much. That could mean it’s safe, or it could mean it just hasn’t been extensively tested.

Azadirachtin, another chemical found in neem, is a known pesticide [image source]

The substance that seems to do most of the pesticide heavy lifting is azadirachtin. This is a limonoid (compounds that are probably best known for their presence in citrus fruits). It’s what’s called an antifeedant – a substance produced by plants to deter predators from munching on them. Well, mostly. Humans have a strange habit of developing a taste for plants that produce such substances. Take, for example, odoriferous garlic, clears-out-your-sinuses horseradish, and of course the daddy of them all: nicotine.

Azadirachtin is known to affect lots of species of insects, both by acting as an antifeedant and as a growth disruptor. Handily, it’s also biodegradable – and breaks down in a few days when exposed to light and water.

That makes it appealing as a potential pesticide, and it’s also generally described as having low toxicity in mammals – its reported LD50 tends to fall into the grams per kilogram range, which makes it “moderately to slightly toxic“. Wikipedia quotes a value (without a source, as I write this) of >3,540 mg/kg in rats.

But… I did find another page quoting 13 mg/kg in mice. That’s quite dramatically different, and would make it extremely/highly toxic. Unfortunately I couldn’t get my hands on the original source, so I haven’t been able to verify it’s not a transposition error.

Let’s assume it isn’t. It would be odd to have such a big difference between mice and rats. Things that poison mice tend to poison rats, too. There might be some confusion over pure azadirachtin vs. “neem extract” – it could be the case that the mixture of chemicals working together in neem create some sort of synergistic (toxic) effect – greater than the sum of all the individual substances. It could be an experimental error, including a contaminated neem sample, or something to do with the way the animals were exposed to the extract.

Neem soap is widely available online, but that may not be a good thing…

It’s difficult to say. Well, it’s difficult for me to say, because I don’t have access to all the primary sources. (Any toxicologists out there, please do feel free to weigh into the comments section!) But either way, as I’ve already mentioned, several case studies have fingered azadirachtin as one of the substances likely to be causing the well-reported nasty side effects.

If you’re asking this chemist? I say be careful with the stuff. If you decide to use it on your plants, keep it out of reach of children, and wear some good-quality disposable gloves while you’re handling it (I put some on after I took that photo back there). If you’re pregnant, or trying to become pregnant, the safest option is to not use it at all.

Which brings me to neem soap.

Yup. It’s sold as a “natural” treatment for skin conditions like acne. I won’t link to a specific brand, but it’s easy to find multiple retailers with a simple Google search. I looked at one selling soap bars for £6.99 a pop, containing 10% (certified organic, because of course) neem oil. Did I mention back there that neem is known to cause contact dermatitis? I’m fairly sure I did. None of the products I saw had obvious safety warnings, and I certainly found nothing about safety (or otherwise) for pregnant women.

Plus – worryingly, not least because children are more likely to get things in their mouth – you can also buy kids and babies versions, again purporting to contain 10% neem oil.

I even found neem toothpaste. Which… given people often swallow toothpaste… yikes.

My moth orchids are looking much healthier now I’ve got rid of all the scale bugs!

Now again, and for the umpteenth time, the dose makes the poison. The case studies I’ve mentioned involved, at a minimum, swallowing a teaspoon of pure neem oil, and you’re not getting that sort of quantity from smears of toothpaste. But, at the same time, when it comes to pregnancy and babies, it’s generally sensible to apply a precautionary principle, especially for things like soap and toothpaste for which alternatives with well-established safety profiles exist.

Bottom line? Would I use these products? I would not.

But I do use neem to treat the scale bugs on my orchids, and they’re doing much better than they were. Fingers crossed for more flowers!


Do you want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not take a look at my fiction blog: the fiction phial? You can also find me doing various flavours of editor-type-stuff at the horror podcast, PseudoPod.org – so head over there, too!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2021. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. You can support my writing my buying a super-handy Pocket Chemist from Genius Lab Gear using the code FLASK15 at checkout (you’ll get a discount, too!) or by buying me a coffee – the button is right here…
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Brilliant Bee Chemistry!

20th May is World Bee Day, the aim of which is to raise awareness of the importance of bees and beekeeping. So, hey, let’s do that!

I’m helped this month by my horticulturist* dad who, while working in a public garden recently, discovered this honeybee swarm in a honeysuckle. (Me: “what sort of tree is that?” Dad: “a winter flowering Honeysuckle lonicera. It’s a shrub, not a tree!” Yes, despite his tireless efforts I’m still pretty clueless about plants.)

Now, Dad knows what he’s doing in such situations. He immediately called the professionals. One does not mess around with (or ignore) a swarm of bees – one finds a beekeeper, stat. Obviously bees can sting, but they’re also endangered and they need to be collected to protect them. Should you find yourself in such a situation, you can find someone local via the British Beekeepers Association website.

That out of the way, aren’t they gorgeous? A swarm like this is a natural phenomenon, that happens when new queen bees are born and raised in the colony. Worker bees stop feeding the old queen – because a laying queen is too heavy to fly – and then in time she leaves with a swarm. They cluster somewhere, as you see in the photo, while scout bees go looking for a new location to settle. Bees in swarms only have the honey or nectar in their stomachs to keep them going, so they’ll starve if they don’t find a new home, and nectar, quickly.

This is all fascinating, of course, but what does it have to do with chemistry? Well, quite a bit, because bees are brilliant chemists. Really!

Ethyl oleate is an ester and an important chemical for bees (image source)

Firstly, despite what DreamWorks might have taught us, bees don’t have vocal cords, and they don’t sound like Jerry Seinfeld. A lot of their communication is chemical-based (actually, it turns out this is a topic of hot debate in bee circles, but since this is a chemistry blog, I’m not doing waggle dances. No, not even if you ask nicely).

As you might imagine, there are multiple chemicals involved, and I won’t go into all of them. Many are esters, which are known for their sweet, fruity smells, and which are also (at least, the longer-chain ones) the building blocks of fats.

One such chemical is ethyl oleate which plants produce and which, interestingly, we humans also make in our bodies when we drink alcohol. Forager bees gather ethyl oleate and carry it in their stomachs, and they then feed it to worker bees. It has the effect of keeping those workers in a nurse bee state and prevents them from maturing into forager bees too early. But, as forager bees die off, less ethyl oleate is available, and this “tells” the nurse bees to mature more quickly – so the colony makes more foragers. Clever, eh?

In this situation, ethyl oleate is acting as a pheromone, in other words, a substance that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Another example is Nasonov’s pheromone, which is a mixture of chemicals including geraniol (think fresh, “green” smell), nerolic acid, geranic acid (an isomer of nerolic acid) and citral (smells of lemon).

The white gland at the top of the honeybee’s abdomen releases pheromones which entice the swarm to an empty hive (image source)

An interesting aside: geranic acid has been investigated as an antiseptic material. It can penetrate skin, and has been shown to help the delivery of transdermal antibiotics, which are being investigated partly as a solution to the problem of antibiotic resistance. Nature is, as always, amazing.

Anyway, worker bees (which, again contrary to DreamWorks’ narrative, are female) release Nasonov’s pheromone to orient returning forager bees (also female) back to the colony. They do this by raising up their abdomens and fanning their wings. Beekeepers can use synthetic Nasonov pheromone, sometimes mixed with a “queen bee pheromone” to attract honeybee swarms to an unoccupied hive or swarm-catching box.

As my Dad chatted to the beekeepers (partly on my insistence – I was on the other end of my phone texting questions and demanding photos) one substance they were particularly keen to mention was “the alarm pheromone,” which “smells of bananas.”

Ooh, interesting, I thought. Turns out, this is isoamyl acetate, which is another ester. In fact, depending on your chemistry teacher’s enthusiasm for esters, you might even have made it in school – it forms when acetic acid (the vinegary one) is combined with 3-methylbutan-1-ol (isoamyl alcohol).

Never eat a banana by a bee.

Isoamyl acetate is used to give foods a banana flavour and scent. But, funnily enough, actual bananas you buy in the shops today don’t contain very much of it, the isoamyl acetate-rich ones having been wiped out by a fungal plague in the 1990s. This has lead to the peculiar situation of banana-flavoured foods tasting more like bananas than… well… bananas.

Modern bananas can still be upset bees, though. There are numerous stories of unwary individuals who walked too close to hives while eating a banana and been attacked. So, top tip: if you’re going on a picnic, leave the bananas (and banana-flavoured sweets, milkshakes etc) at home.

The reason is that banana-scented isoamyl acetate is released when honeybees sting. They don’t do this lightly, of course, since they can’t pull out the barbed stinger afterwards, and that means the bee has to leave part of its digestive tract, muscles and nerves embedded in your skin. It’s death for the bee, but the act of stinging releases the pheromone, which signals other bees to attack, attack, attack.

One bee sting might not deter a large predator, but several stings will. Multiple bee stings can trigger a lethal anaphylactic reaction, known allergy or not. So although utilising their stingers causes the death of a few (almost certainly infertile) bees, the rest of the colony (including the fertile individuals) is more likely to survive. From an evolutionary perspective it’s worth it – genes survive to be passed on.

Isoamyl acetate

Isoamyl acetate is an ester that smells of bananas, and is an alarm pheremone for bees (image source)

Moving on, I obviously can’t write a whole blog post about bees and not mention honey! We take it for granted, but it’s amazingly complicated. It contains at least 181 different substances, and nothing human food scientists have been able to synthesise quite compares.

In terms of sugars, it’s mostly glucose and fructose. Now, I’ve written about sugars extensively before, so I won’t explain them yet again, but I will just reiterate my favourite soap-box point: your body ultimately doesn’t distinguish between “processed” sugars in foods and the sugars in honey. In fact, one might legitimately argue that honey is massively processed, just, you know, by bees. So, you want to cut down on your sugar intake for health reasons? Sorry, but honey needs to go, too.

Honey is actually a supersaturated solution. In very simple terms, this means there’s an excess of sugar dissolved in a small amount of water. One substance which bees use to achieve this bit of clever chemistry is the enzyme, invertase, which they produce in their salivary glands. Nectar contains sucrose (“table sugar”) and, after the bees collect nectar, invertase helps to break it down into the smaller molecules of glucose and fructose.

“Set” honey is honey that’s been crystallised in a controlled way.

That’s only the beginning, though. There are lots of other enzymes involved. Amylase breaks down another sugar, amylose, into glucose. And glucose oxidase breaks down glucose and helps to stabilise the honey’s pH. One of the molecules produced in the reaction with glucose oxidase produces is hydrogen peroxide, which yet another enzyme, catalase, further breaks down into water and oxygen.

Bees regurgitate and re-drink nectar (yes, I suggest you don’t overthink it) over a period of time, which both allows the sugar chemistry to happen and also reduces the water content. When it’s about one-fifth water, the honey is deposited in the honeycomb, and the bees fan it with their wings to speed up the evaporation process even further. They stop when it’s down to about one-sixth water.

As I said a moment ago, honey is a supersaturated solution, and that means it’s prone to crystallising. This isn’t necessarily bad, in fact, “set” honey (my personal favourite) is honey which has been crystallised in a controlled way, so as to produce fine crystals and a creamy (rather than grainy) product.

The formation of a new honeycomb.

The potential problem with crystallisation is that once the sugar crystals fall out of solution, the remaining liquid has a higher-than-ideal percentage of water. This can allow microorganisms to grow. In particular, yeasts can take hold, leading to fermentation. Honey left on the comb in the hive tends not to crystallise, but once it’s collected and stored, there’s a greater chance that some particle of something or other will get in there and trigger the process. It helps to store it somewhere above room temperature. And honey is naturally hygroscopic, which means it absorbs water. So store it somewhere dry. In short, never put honey in the fridge.

Speaking of yeast and heat, heating changes honey and makes it darker in colour, thanks to the Maillard reaction. Commercial honey is often pasteurized to kill any yeast, which improves its shelf life and produces a smoother product. Also, because honey is naturally slightly acidic (around pH 4), over time the amino acids within in start to break down and this also leads to a darkening of the colour.

One more important safety concern: honey, even when pasteurized, can contain bacteria that produce toxins in a baby’s intestines and lead to infant botulism. So, never give children under one honey. It’s not a risk for older children (and adults) thanks to their more mature digestive systems.

T

Back to Dad’s bees! They were collected in a transport box by two local experts, Sharon and Ian. The bees march into the box two-by-two, wafting Nazonov’s pheromone to signal that this is home. From there, they were safely transferred to a new, wooden hive.

There’s only one way to finish this post, I think, and that’s with one of my all-time favourite Granny Weatherwax moments:

‘Your bees,’ she went on, ‘is your mead, your wax, your bee gum, your honey. A wonderful thing is your bee. Ruled by a queen, too,’ she added, with a touch of approval.

‘Don’t they sting you?’ said Esk, standing back a little. Bees boiled out of the comb and overflowed the rough wooden sides of the box.

‘Hardly ever,’ said Granny. ‘You wanted magic. Watch.’

Happy World Bee Day, everyone and, as always, GNU Terry Pratchett.


* Dad was unsure about the label “horticulturist” but I pointed out that the definition is an expert in garden cultivation and management, particularly someone’s who’s paid for their work. All of which he is. He replied wryly that, “x is an unknown quantity, and a spurt is a long drip.” Love you, Dad x 😄


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Vibrant Viburnum: the fascinating chemistry of fragrant flowers

There’s a Viburnum carlesii bush (sometimes called Koreanspice) near my front door and, right now, it smells amazing. It only flowers for a relatively short time each year and otherwise isn’t that spectacular – especially in the autumn when it drops its leaves all over the doorstop, and I’m constantly brushing them out of the house.

But it’s all worth it for these few weeks in April, when everyone who has any reason to come anywhere near our door says, ‘ooh, what is that smell? It’s gorgeous!’ We also rear butterflies at this time of year, and they love the flowers once they’ve emerged from their chrysalids. (No, of course this isn’t an excuse to include all my butterfly photos in a post. Painted lady, since you ask.)

But let’s talk chemistry – what is in the Viburnum carlesii’s fragrance? Well, it’s a bit complicated. Fragrances, as you might imagine, often are. We detect smells when volatile (things that vaporise easily) compounds find their way to our noses which are, believe it or not, great chemical detectors.

Well, I say great, many animals have far better smell detection: dogs, of course, are particularly known for it. Their noses have some 300 million scent receptors*, while humans “only” have 5-6 million but, and this is the really fantastic part, by some estimates we’re still able to detect a trillion or so smells. We (and other animals) inhale air that contains odour molecules, and those molecules bind to the receptors in our noses, triggering electrical impulses that our brains interpret as smell.

Most scents aren’t just one molecule, but are actually complex mixtures. Our brains learn to recognise combinations and to associate them with certain, familiar things. It’s not that different from recognising patterns of sound as speech, or patterns of light as images, it’s just that we often don’t think of smell in quite the same way.

Viburnum carlesii flowers have a fragrance often described as sweet and spicy.

So my Viburnum bush – and the flowers I’ve cut and put on my desk – is actually pumping out loads of different molecules right now. After a bit of hunting around, I tracked them down to (brace yourself for a list of chemical names) isoeugenol, eugenol, methyleugenol, 4-allylsyringol, vinyl-guaiacol and methyl nicotinate, plus the old favourites methyl salicylate (this stuff turns up everywhere), methyl benzoate (so does this), indole, cinnamic aldehyde and vanillin, and then some isovaleraldehyde, acetoin, hexanal, (Z)-3-hexen-1-ol and methional.

Phew.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about the chemistry of all of those. But just for a moment consider how wondrous it is that our noses and brains work together to detect all of those molecules, in their relevant quantities, and then send the thought to our conscious mind that oh, hey, the Viburnum is flowering! (It’s also pretty astonishing that, in 2021, I can just plug all those names into a search engine and, with only a couple of exceptions, get all sorts of information about them in seconds – back in the old days when I was studying chemistry, you had to use a book index, and half the time the name you wanted wasn’t there. You kids don’t know how good you’ve got it, I’m telling you.)

Anyway, if you glance at those names, you’ll see eugenol popping up quite a bit, so let’s talk about that. It’s a benzene ring with a few other groups attached, and lots of chemicals like this have distinctive smells. In fact, we refer to molecules with these sorts of ring structures as “aromatic” for this exact, historical reason – when early chemists first isolated them, they noticed their distinctive scents.

Eugenol is an aromatic compound, both in terms of chemistry and fragrance (image source)

In fact there are several groups of molecules in chemistry that we tend to think of as particularly fragrant. There are esters (think nail polish and pear drops), linear terpenes (citrus, floral), cyclic terpenes (minty, woody), amines (fishy, rot) and the aromatics I’ve just mentioned.

But back to eugenol: it’s a yellowish, oily liquid that can be extracted from plants such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, basil and bay leaves. This might give you an idea of its scent, which is usually described as “spicy” and “clove-like”.

Not surprisingly, it turns up in perfumes, and also flavourings, since smell and flavour are closely linked. It’s also a local antiseptic and anaesthetic – you may have used some sort of eugenol-based paste, or perhaps just clove oil, if you’ve ever had a tooth extracted.

Plants, of course, don’t go to the trouble and biological expense of making these chemicals just so that humans can walk past and say, “ooh, that smells nice!” No, the benefit for the plant is in attracting insects, which (hopefully) help with pollination. Which explains why my butterflies like the flowers so much. (Another butterfly pic? Oh well, since you insist.) Eugenol, it turns out, is particularly attractive to various species of orchid bee, which use it to synthesise their own pheromones. Nature’s clever, isn’t she?

By the way, notice I mentioned anaesthetics back there? Eugenol turns out to be too toxic to use for this in large quantities, but the study of it did lead to the development of the widely-used drug propofol which, sadly, is pretty important right now – it’s used to sedate mechanically ventilated patients, such as those with severe COVID-19 symptoms. You may have seen some things in the news earlier this year about anaesthetic supply issues, precisely for this reason.

Isoeugenol has the same “backbone” as eugenol, with just a difference to the position of the C=C bond on the right. (image source)

Back in that list of chemical names, you’ll see “eugenol” forming parts of other names, for example isoeugenol. This points back to a time when chemicals tended to be named based on their origins. Eugenol took its name from the tree from which we get oil of cloves, Eugenia, which was in turn named after Prince Eugene of Savoy – a field marshal in the army of the Holy Roman Empire. And then other molecules with the same “backbone” were given the same name with prefixes and suffixes added on to describe their differences. As I said in my last post, this sort of naming system it was eventually replaced with more consistent rules, but a lot of these older substances have held onto their original names.

Still, regardless of what we call the chemicals, the flowers smell delightful. I’m off to replenish the vase on my desk while I still can. Roll on May, vaccines and (hopefully) lockdown easing!

Take care and stay safe.


*it’s even been suggested dogs’ super-powered sense of smell might be able to detect COVID-19 infections.


If you’re studying chemistry, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win! If you happen to know a chemist, it would make a brilliant stocking-filler! As would a set of chemistry word magnets!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2021. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, and especially if you’re using information you’ve found here to write a piece for which you will be paid, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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Want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial.

 

One Flash of Light, One Vision: Carrots, Colour and Chemistry

“White” light is made up of all the colours of the rainbow.

Sometimes you have one of those weeks when the universe seems to be determined to yell at you about a certain thing. That’s happened to me this week, and the shouting has been all about light and vision (earworm, anyone?).

I started the week writing about conjugated molecules and UV spectrometry for one project, was asked a couple of days ago if I’d support a piece of work on indicators for the RSC Twitter Poster Conference that’s happening from 2-3rd March, and then practically fell over a tweet by Dr Adam Rutherford about bacteria that photosynthesise from infrared light in a hydrothermal vent*.

Oh well, who am I to fight the universe?

Light is awesome. The fact that we can detect it is even awesome-er. The fact that we’ve evolved brains clever enough built all sorts of machines to measure other kinds of light that our puny human eyes cannot detect is, frankly, astonishing.

The electromagnetic spectrum covers all the different kinds of light. (Image source)

Let’s start with some basics. You probably met the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum at some point in school. Possibly a particularly enthusiastic physics teacher encouraged you to come up with some sort of mnemonic to help you remember it. Personally I like Rich Men In Vegas Use eXpensive Gadgets, but maybe that’s just me.

The relevant thing here is that the EM spectrum covers all the different wavelengths of light. Visible light, the stuff that’s, well, visible (to our eyes), runs from about 400 to 700 nanometres.

A colour wheel: when light is absorbed, we see the colour opposite the absorbed wavelengths. (Image source)

Now, we need another bit of basic physics (and biology): we see light when it enters our eyes and strikes our retinas. We see colours when only certain wavelengths of light make it into our eyes.

So-called “white” light is made up of all the colours of the rainbow. Take one or more of those colours away, and we see what’s left.

For example, if something looks red, it means that red light made it to our eyes, which in turn means that, somewhere along the way, blue and green were filtered out.

(Before I go any further, there are actually several causes of colour, but I’m about to focus on one in particular. If you really want to know more, there’s this book, although it is a tad expensive…)

Back to chemistry. Certain substances absorb coloured light. We know them as pigments. Carrots are orange, for example, largely because they contain a pigment called beta-carotene (or β-carotene). This stuff appears, to our eyes, as red-orange, and the reason for that is that it absorbs green-blue light, the wavelengths around 400-500 nm.

β-Carotene is a long molecule with lots of C=C double bonds. (Image source.)

Why does it absorb light at all? Well, β-carotene is a really long molecule, with lots of C=C double bonds. These bonds form what’s called a conjugated system. Without getting into the complexities of molecular orbital theory, that means the double bonds alternate along the chain, and they basically overlap and… smoosh into one long thing. (Look, as the saying goes, “all models are wrong, but some are useful,” – it’ll do for now.)

When molecules with conjugated systems are exposed to electromagnetic light, they absorb it. Specifically, they absorb in the ultraviolet region – the wavelengths between about 200 and 400 nanometres. Here’s the thing, though, those wavelengths are right next to the violet end of the visible spectrum – that’s why it’s called ultraviolet after all.

Molecules with really long conjugated systems start to absorb in the coloured light region, as well. And because they’re absorbing violet and blue, possibly a smidge of green, they look… yup! Orangey, drifting into red.

So now you know why carrots are orange. Most brightly coloured fruit, of course, is that way to attract animals and birds to eat it, and thus spread its seeds. As fruit ripens, it usually changes colour, making it stand out better against green foliage and easier to find. This is the link with indicators that I mentioned at the start: many fruits contain anthocyanin pigments, and these often have purple-red colours in neutral-acidic environments, and yellow-green at the more alkaline end. In other words, the colour change is quite literally an indicator of ripeness.

But the bit of the carrot that we usually eat is underground, right? Not particularly easy to spot, and they don’t contain seeds anyway. Why are carrots bright orange?

Modern carrots are mostly orange, but purple and yellow varieties also exist.

Well, they weren’t. The edible roots of wild plants almost certainly started out as white or cream-coloured, as you might expect for something growing underground, but the carrots which were first domesticated and farmed by humans in around 900 CE were, most probably, purple and yellow.

As carrot cultivation became popular, orange roots began to appear in Spain and Germany in the 15th/16th centuries. Very orange carrots, with high levels of β-carotene, appeared from the 16th/17th centuries and were probably first cultivated in the Netherlands. Some have theorised that they were particularly selected for to honour William of Orange, but the evidence for this seems to be a bit slight. Either way, most modern European carrots do descend from a variety that was originally grown in the Dutch town of Hoorn.

In other words, brightly-coloured carrots are a mutation which human plant breeders selected for, probably largely for appearances.

But wait! There was an advantage for humans, too – even if we didn’t realise it straight away. β-carotene (which, by the way, has the E number E160a – many natural substances have E numbers, they’re nothing to be frightened of) is broken up in our intestines to form vitamin A.

Vitamin A is essential for good eye health.

Vitamin A, like most vitamins, is actually a group of compounds, but the important thing is that it’s essential for growth, a healthy immune system and – this is the really clever bit – good vision.

We knew that. Carrots help you see in the dark, right?

Hah. Well. The idea that carrot consumption actually improves eyesight seems to be the result of a World War II propaganda campaign. During the Blitz, the Royal Air Force had (at that time) new, secret radar technology. They didn’t want anyone to know that, of course, so they spread the rumour that British pilots could see exceptionally well in the dark because they ate a lot of carrots, when the truth was that those pilots were actually using radar.

But! It’s not all a lie – there is some truth to it! Our retinas, at the back of our eyes, have two types of light-sensitive cells. Cone cells help us distinguish colours, while rod cells help us detect light in general.

In those rod cells, a molecule called 11-cis-retinal is converted into another molecule called rhodopsin. This is really light-sensitive. When it’s exposed to light it photobleaches (stops being able to fluoresce), but then regenerates. This process takes about thirty minutes, and is a large part of the reason it takes a while for your eyes to “get used to the dark.”

Guess where 11-cis-retinal comes from? Yep! From vitamin A. Which is why one of the symptoms of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness. So although eating loads of carrots won’t give you super-powered night vision, it does help to maintain vision in low light.

Our brain interprets electrical signals as vision.

How do these molecules actually help us to see? Well, when rhodopsin is exposed to light, the molecule changes, which ultimately results in an electrical signal being transmitted along the optic nerve to the brain, which interprets it as vision!

In summary, not only is colour all about molecules, but our whole visual system depends on some clever chemistry. I told you chemistry was cool!

Just gimme fried chicken 😉


*Ah. I sort of ran out of space for the weird hydrothermal bacteria thing. At least one of the relevant molecules seems to be another carotenoid, probably chlorobactene. The really freaking amazing thing is that there seems to be an absorption at 775 nm, which is beyond red visible light and into the infrared region of the EM spectrum. Maybe more on this another day…


If you’re studying chemistry, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win! If you happen to know a chemist, it would make a brilliant stocking-filler! As would a set of chemistry word magnets!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2021. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, and especially if you’re using information you’ve found here to write a piece for which you will be paid, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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Want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial.

 

Is there NO way to stop COVID-19?

UK trials have begun of a nasal spray that could prevent COVID-19 infections

A few weeks ago, it was announced that UK trials were beginning of a nasal spray proven to kill 99.9% of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The idea, broadly, is that you’d use the spray first thing in the morning, during the day after social interactions, and then again in the evening — and it would prevent the virus from taking hold and making you ill.

Awesome, right? Simple, cheap, portable. Sort of like cleaning your teeth regularly: prevention rather than cure. Combined with a vaccine, particularly for anyone at high risk such as those in healthcare settings, it could put a stop to the whole thing — and might also turn out to be effective on other, less deadly but still annoying, viruses.

But, I hear you ask, what is it? Because if I’m going to squirt something up my nose several times a day, I have questions…

Nitric oxide has the chemical formula NO

Fair enough. It’s actually, mostly, nitric oxide, which has the chemical formula NO.

Yes, there are plenty of wordplay options here. The researchers have already jammed the letters NO into their company name, and done the acronym thing, to get SaNOtize Nitric Oxide Nasal Spray (NONS). If the trials are successful, it’s probably only a matter of time before we get: “Say NO to coronavirus!” marketing. (Any ad agencies reading this, I’m claiming copyright.)

But that aside, unless you’re a chemist you might be thinking about some half-remembered chemical names and frowning at this point. Isn’t that… used in rocket fuel? Or… wait… isn’t that… the nasty smoggy stuff that causes lung problems?

Ah, well, there are several nitrogen oxides. Let me summarise:

Nitric oxides in the atmosphere cause photochemical smog.

There are other nitrogen oxides, not to mention ions — but let’s not spend all day on this. Nitrogen forms this confusing hodgepodge of oxides because it has five electrons in its outermost shell (it’s in group 15 of the periodic table) and because there’s not much difference in the electronegativities of oxygen and nitrogen. So essentially, it can share electrons with oxygen to form bonds in a number of different ways to obtain a stable, full outer shell.

For any students reading this, I’m sorry. You… pretty much just have to remember these. Yes, I know. That’s why experienced chemists so often use the shorthand NOx — we just can’t be bothered keeping all the names straight. (Okay, before someone shouts at me, actually NOx is handy because we’re often talking about more than one oxide at a time, and it allows us to easily express that.)

Back to NO. It’s a colourless gas, and it has an unpaired electron, which makes it a free radical. And… here we go again. Aren’t we supposed to eat lots of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables to mop up free radicals? They’re bad, aren’t they?

Viagra (Sildenafil) makes use of the nitric oxide pathway which causes blood vessels to dilate…

Yes and no. Free radicals are reactive species which damage cells and can cause illness and ageing. Too much exposure to free radicals causes something oxidative stress, which is definitely bad. But. It turns out that nitrogen oxide is an important signalling molecule, that is, a molecule which is the body uses to send chemical signals from one place to another. In particular, nitrogen oxide “tells” the smooth muscle around blood vessels to relax, causing those blood vessels to dilate, and increasing blood flow. Viagra (aka Sildenafil) uses the nitric oxide pathway, and I think we all know what that does, don’t we? Good.

Nitric oxide has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, which is generally considered a good thing — up to a point, obviously. This is why you can buy lots of so-called nitric oxide supplements, which, since nitrogen oxide is a gas at room temperature, don’t actually contain nitric oxide on its own. Rather, they’re a mixture of amino acids and other things that supposedly help the body to make NO. But it might be cheaper, and healthier, to eat plenty of beetroot or drink beetroot juice, since there’s evidence that does the same sort of thing.

As always, the dose makes the poison. Too much nitric oxide is definitely problematic, but administered in the right way and in appropriate doses, it’s extremely safe.

It’s suggested that the nitric oxide in the SaNOtize nasal spray destroys the virus and also helps to stop viral replication within cells. Plus, it blocks the receptors that the virus uses to enter cells in the first place. Essentially, it locks the doors and rains down fire on the potential intruders — nice work.

You only need to use the spray occasionally, because developing a COVID-19 infection isn’t instant. First the virus gets into your nose, then it attaches to cells, then it replicates, and then it sheds into your lungs. There are timescales involved here — so long as the spray is used every so often it should do the trick.

Another advantage is that this should, theoretically, work on other strains — where the current vaccines may not. So it could provide a very important stopgap when vaccination isn’t immediately available.

This is only in the early stages of clinical trials so, for now, wear your mask.

All sounds fabulous, doesn’t it? It might be, but, we’re in the early stages with this. Clinical trials have now started in the UK, are already in Phase II in Canada and have been approved to start in the USA. Researchers are hopeful, but we need to wait for the evidence.

So in the meantime, wear a mask, wash your hands, and take a vaccine if you’re offered one. Stay safe out there!


If you’re studying chemistry, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win! If you happen to know a chemist, it would make a brilliant stocking-filler! As would a set of chemistry word magnets!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2021. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, and especially if you’re using information you’ve found here to write a piece for which you will be paid, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial.

 

 

Sunshine, skin chemistry, and vitamin D

The UK is on the same latitude as Northern Canada (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

As I write this it’s the last day of September in the U.K., which means we’re well into meteorological autumn and summer is, at least here, a distant memory. The weather is cooler and the days are getting shorter. Soon, the clocks will go back an hour, and we’ll shift from BST (British Summer Time) to GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

Seasons in the U.K. are particularly marked because of our northerly latitude. British weather tends to be fairly mild (thanks, Gulf Stream), and it’s easy to forget just how far north we are – but a quick look at a globe makes it clear: London is actually further north than most of the major Canadian cities, while the Polar Bear Provincial Park in Ontario is roughly on the same latitude as Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.

Yes, I hear you say, but what on Earth (hoho) does this have to do with chemistry?

Well, a clever little piece of chemistry happens in human skin, and, if you live in the U.K., it’s about to stop. At least, until next spring.

Some clever chemistry happens in human skin.

There’s a substance in your skin called 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC). It is, as the name suggests, something to do with cholesterol (which, despite its bad press, is an essential component of animal cell membranes). In fact, 7-DHC is converted to cholesterol in the body, but it’s also converted to something else.

You will have heard of vitamin D. It helps us to absorb calcium and other minerals, and if children, in particular, don’t get enough it can lead to rickets – which leads to weak bones, bowed legs and stunted growth. Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked to lots of other health problems, including increased risk of certain cancers, heart disease, arthritis and even type one diabetes.

More recently, vitamin D has been linked to COVID-19. It’s estimated that around 80-85% of people who contract COVID-19 experience mild or no symptoms, while the rest develop severe symptoms and, even if they recover, may suffer life-altering after-effects for many months. Early data suggest that patients with low vitamin D levels are much more likely to experience those severe symptoms. There’s a plausible mechanism for this: vitamin D helps to regulate the immune system and, in particular, helps to reduce the production of cytokines.

It’s possible that having inadequate levels of vitamin D may increase your chances of a severe response to COVID-19.

Cytokines are small proteins which are important in cell signalling, but if the body starts to produce too many in response to a virus it can cause something called a cytokine storm, which can lead to organ failure and death.

It’s proposed that having the right levels of vitamin D might help to prevent such cytokine storms, and therefore help to prevent a severe COVID-19 response. This is all early stages, because everyone is still learning about COVID-19, and it may turn out to be correlation without causation, but so far it looks promising.

One thing you many not know is that vitamin D is, technically, misnamed. Vitamins are, by definition, substances which are required in small quantities in the diet, because they can’t be synthesised in the body.

But vitamin D, which is actually a group of fat soluble molecules rather than a single substance, can be synthesised in the body, in our skin. The most important two in the group are ergocalciferol (vitamin D2) and cholecalciferol (vitamin D3), sometimes known collectively as calciferol.

Shiitake mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D2.

Vitamin D2 is found in fungi, but it’s cleared more quickly from the body than D3, so needs to be consumed in some form daily. Mushrooms are a good source (especially if they’ve been exposed to UV light), so if you like mushrooms, that’s one way to go. Vitamin D3 is hard to obtain from diet – the only really good source is oily fish, although other foods are fortified – but that’s okay because, most of the time, we don’t need to eat it.

Which brings us back to 7-DHC. It’s found in large quantities in the skin, although exactly how it gets there has been the subject of some debate. It used to be thought it was formed from cholesterol via an enzymatic reaction in the intestine wall and then transported to the skin via the bloodstream. But the trouble with this idea is that the blood would pass through the liver, and 7-DHC would be reconverted to cholesterol, never having a chance to build up in skin. A more robust theory is it’s actually synthesised in the skin in the first place, particularly since higher levels are found in a layer closer to the surface (the stratum spinosum) than in the deeper dermis.

We make vitamin D in our skin when we’re exposed to UVB light from the sun.

Anyway, the important thing is that 7-DHC absorbs UV light, particularly wavelengths between 290 and 320 nm, that is, in the UVB range, sometimes called “intermediate” UV (in contrast with “soft” UVA, and “hard” UVC). When exposed to UVB light, one of the rings in the 7-DHC molecule breaks apart, forming something known pre-D3, that then converts (isomerises) to vitamin D3 in a heat-sensitive process.

In short, we make vitamin D3 in our skin when we’re in the sunshine. Obviously we need to avoid skin damage from UV light, but the process doesn’t take long: 10-15 minutes of midday sunlight three times a week, in the U.K. in the summer, is enough to keep our levels up.

Sun exposure is by far the quickest, and certainly the cheapest, way to get your vitamin D. If you live somewhere where that’s possible.

Here’s the thing, though, if you live in the U.K., for a chunk of the year, it’s just not. I’ve pinched the graph here from my husband, whose work involves solar panels, because it makes a nice visual point.

The amount of sunlight we’re exposed to in the U.K. drops sharply in autumn and winter.

From April – September, there’s plenty of energy available from sunlight. But look at what happens from October – March. The numbers drop drastically. And here’s the thing: it turns out that vitamin D production in human skin only occurs when UV radiation exceeds a certain level. Below this threshold? Well, no photocoversion takes place.

In short: if you live in the U.K. you can’t make vitamin D in your skin for a few months of the year. And those few months are starting… round about now.

The NILU has a web page where you can calculate how much vitamin D you can synthesise in your skin on a given day.

If you want to experiment, there’s a website here, published by the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), where you can enter various parameters – month, longitude, cloudiness etc – and it will tell you how many hours during a given a day it’s possible to synthesise vitamin D in your skin.

Have a play and you’ll see that, for London, vitamin D synthesis drops off to zero somewhere around the end of November, and doesn’t restart until sometime after the 20th of January. In Edinburgh, the difference is even more marked, running from the first week or so of November to the first week of February.

It’s important to realise that it tails off, too, so during the days either side of these periods there’s only a brief period during midday when you can synthesise vitamin D. And all this assumes a cloudless sky which in this country… is unlikely.

The skin pigment, melanin, absorbs UVB. (Image Source: Wiki Commons)

The situation is worse still if you have darker skin because the skin pigment, melanin, absorbs UVB. On the one hand, this is a good thing, since it protects skin cells from sun-related damage. But it also reduces the ability to synthesise vitamin D. In short, wimpy autumn and winter sunshine just isn’t going to cut it.

Likewise, to state the obvious, anyone who covers their skin (with clothing or sunblock), also won’t be able to synthesise vitamin D in their skin.

Fortunately, there’s a simple answer: supplements. The evidence is fairly solid that vitamin D supplements increase blood serum levels as well as, if not better than, sunshine – which, for the reasons mentioned above, can be difficult to obtain consistently.

Now, as I’ve said many times before, I’m not a medical doctor. However, I’m on fairly safe ground here, because Public Health England do actually recommend everyone take a vitamin D supplement from October to May. That is, from now. Yes, now.

I do need to stress one point here: DO NOT OVERDO IT. There always seems to be someone whose reasoning goes along the lines of, “if one tablet is good, then ten will be even better!” and, no. No. Excessive doses of vitamin D can cause vomiting and digestive problems, and can lead to hypercalcemia which results in weakness, joint pain confusion and other unpleasant symptoms.

If you live in the U.K. you should be taking a vitamin D supplement from October-May.

Public Health England recommend everyone in the U.K. take 10 micrograms per day in autumn and winter. Babies under one year should also be given 8.5–10 micrograms of vitamin D in the form of vitamin drops, unless they’re drinking more than 500 ml of infant formula a day (because that’s already fortified).

Amounts can get a little confusing, because there are different ways to measure vitamin D doses, and in particular you may see IU, or “international units“. However, if you buy a simple D3 supplement, like this one that I picked up at the supermarket, and follow the dose instructions on the label, you won’t go far wrong.

So, should you (and everyone else in your family) be taking a simple vitamin D supplement right around now? If you live in the U.K., or somewhere else very northerly, then yes. Well, unless you’re really keen to eat mushrooms pretty much every day. At worst, it won’t make much difference, and at best, well, there’s a chance it might help you to avoid a really unpleasant time with COVID-19, and that’s got to be a good thing.

But, look, it’s not toilet roll. Don’t go and bulk buy vitamin D, for goodness sake.

Until next time, take care, and stay safe.


If you’re studying chemistry, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2020. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, and especially if you’re using information you’ve found here to write a piece for which you will be paid, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial.

Chemical connections: dexamethasone, hydroxychloroquine and rheumatoid arthritis

The chemical structure of dexamethasone (image from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been widely reported today that a “cheap and widely-available” steroid treatment has been shown to be effective in patients suffering the most severe COVID-19 symptoms, significantly reducing the risk of death for both patients on ventilators and those on oxygen treatment.

Most of the reports have understandably focused on the medical aspects, but this is a chemistry blog (mostly) so *cracks chemistry knuckles* what is dexamethasone, exactly?

Its story starts a little over 60 years ago when, in 1958, a paper was published on “clinical observations with 16a-methyl corticosteroid compounds”. Bear with me, I shall explain. Firstly, corticosteroids are hormones which are naturally produced in our bodies. They do all sorts of nifty, useful things like regulate our immune response, reduce inflammation and help us to get energy from carbohydrates. Two of the most familiar names are probably cortisol and cortisone—both of which are released in response to stress.

The discovery of corticosteroids was an important one. So important, in fact, that a few years earlier, in 1950, Tadeusz ReichsteinEdward Calvin Kendall and Philip Showalter Hench had been awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for “discoveries relating to the hormones of the adrenal cortex”.

The adrenal glands are two small glands found above the kidneys. The outermost part of these glands is called the adrenal cortex (“cortex” from the Latin for (tree) bark and meaning, literally, an outer layer). In the mid-1930s Kendall and Reichstein managed to isolate several hormones produced by these glands. They then made preparations which, with input from Hench, were used in the 1940s to treat a number of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis.

This was hugely significant at the time, because until this point the treatments for this painful, debilitating condition were pretty limited. Aspirin was known, of course, but wasn’t particularly effective and long-term use had potentially dangerous side effects. Injectable gold compounds (literally chemical compounds containing Au atoms/ions) had also been tried, but those treatments were slow to work, if they worked at all, and were expensive. The anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine (which has also been in the news quite a lot), had been tried as a “remittive agent”—meaning it could occasionally produce remission—but it wasn’t guaranteed.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes warm, swollen, and painful joints (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Corticosteroids were a game-changer. When Hench and Kendall treated patients with what they called, at the time, “compound E” (cortisone) there was a rapid reduction in joint inflammation. It still caused side effects, and it didn’t prevent joint damage, but it did consistently provide relief from painful symptoms.

Fast-forward to the 1958 paper I mentioned earlier, and scientists had discovered that a little bit of fiddling with the molecular structure of steroid molecules caused them to have different effects in the body. The particular chemical path we’re following here started with prednisolone, which had turned out to be a useful treatment for a number of inflammatory conditions. However, placing a methyl group (—CH3) on the 16th carbon—which is, if you have a look at the diagram below, the one on the pentagon-shaped ring, roughly in the middle—changed things.

The steroid “nucleus”: each number represents a carbon atom (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In 1957, four different molecules with methyl groups on that 16th carbon were made available for clinical trial. One of them was 16a-methyl 9a-fluoroprednisolone, more handily known as dexamethasone.

(Quick aside to explain that on the diagram of dexamethasone at the start of this post, the methyl group on the 16th carbon is represented by a dashed wedge-shape. It’s a 2D diagram of a 3D molecule, and the dashed wedge tells us that the methyl group is pointing away from us, through the paper, or rather, screen. This matters because molecules like this have mirror image forms which usually have very different effects in the body—so it’s important to get the right one.)

Dexamethasone is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines

It turned out that dexamethasone had a much stronger anti-inflammatory action than plain prednisolone, and it was also more effective the other molecules being tested. It caused a bigger reduction in symptoms, at lower doses. A win all round. It did still have side effects—weight gain, skin problems and digestive issues—but these were no worse than other steroids, and better than some. In fact, salt and water retention were less with dexamethasone, which meant less bloating. It also seemed to have less of an effect on carbohydrate metabolism, making it potentially safer for patients with diabetes.

Skipping forward to 2020, and dexamethasone is routinely used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, as well as skin diseases, asthma, COPD and various other conditions. It is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines—a list of drugs thought to be the most important for taking care of the health needs of the population, based on their effectiveness, safety and relative cost.

In the wake of more and more evidence that COVID-19 disease was leading to autoimmune and autoinflammatory diseases, scientists have been looking at anti-inflammatory drugs to see if any of them might help. The Recovery Trial at the University of Oxford was set up to investigate a few different drugs, including hydroxychloroquine (there it is again) and dexamethasone.

It’s not a miracle cure but, in the most severe cases, dexamethasone—a cheap, 60+ year old drug—might just make all the difference.

And that brings us back to today’s news: in the trial, 2104 patients were given dexamethasone once per day for ten days and compared to 4321 patients who were given standard care. The study, led by Professor Peter Horby and Professor Martin Landray, showed that dexamethasone reduced the risk of dying by one-third in ventilated patients and by one fifth in other patients receiving only oxygen.

It’s not a miracle cure by any means: it doesn’t help patients who don’t (yet) need respiratory support, and it doesn’t work for everyone, but, if you find yourself on a ventilator, there’s a chance this 60+ year-old molecule that was first developed to cure rheumatoid arthritis might, just, save your life. And that’s pretty good news.

EDIT 17th June 2020: Chemistry World published an article pointing out that “the trial results have yet to be released leading some to urge caution when interpreting them” and quoting Ayfer Ali, a specialist in drug repurposing, as saying “we have to wait for the full results to be peer reviewed and remember that it is not a cure for all, just one more tool.


If you’re studying from home, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win!

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Want something non-sciency to distract you from, well, everything? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial.

Cleaning chemistry – the awesome power of soap

Well, times are interesting at the moment, aren’t they? I’m not going to talk (much) about The Virus (there’s gonna be a movie, mark my words), because everyone else is, and I’m not an epidemiologist, virologist or an immunologist or, in fact, in any way remotely qualified. I am personally of the opinion that it’s not even especially helpful to talk about possibly-relevant drugs at the moment, given that we don’t know enough about possible negative interactions, and we don’t have reliable data about the older medicines being touted.

In short, I think it’s best I shut up and leave the medical side to the experts. But! I DO know about something relevant. What’s that, I hear you ask? Well, it’s… soap! But wait, before you start yawning, soap is amazing. It is fascinating. It both literally and figuratively links loads of bits of cool chemistry with loads of other bits of cool chemistry. Stay with me, and I’ll explain.

First up, some history (also not a historian, but that crowd is cool, they’ll forgive me) soap is old. Really, really, old. Archaeological evidence suggests ancient Babylonians were making soap around 4800 years ago – probably not for personal hygiene, but rather, mainly, to clean cooking pots. It was originally made from fats boiled with ashes, and the theory generally goes that the discovery was a happy accident: ashes left from cooking fires made it much easier to clean pots and, some experimenting later, we arrived at something we might cautiously recognise today as soap.

Soap was first used to clean pots.

The reason this works is that ashes are alkaline. In fact, the very word “alkali” is derived from the Arabic al qalīy, meaning calcined ashes. This is because plants, and especially wood, aren’t just made up of carbon and hydrogen. Potassium and calcium play important roles in tree and plant metabolism, and as a result both are found in moderately significant quantities in wood. When that wood is burnt at high temperatures, alkaline compounds of potassium and calcium form. If the temperature gets high enough, calcium oxide (lime) forms, which is even more alkaline.

You may, in fact, have heard the term potash. This usually refers to salts that contain potassium in a water-soluble form. Potash was first made by taking plant ashes and soaking them in water in a pot, hence, “pot ash”. And, guess where we get the word potassium from? Yep. The pure element, being very reactive, wasn’t discovered until 1870, thousands of years after people first discovered how useful its compounds could be. And, AND, why does the element potassium have the symbol K? It comes from kali, the root of the word alkali.

See what I mean about connections?

butyl ethanoate butyl ethanoate

Why is the fact that the ashes are alkaline relevant? Well, to answer that we need to think about fats. Chemically, fats are esters. Esters are chains of hydrogen and carbon that have, somewhere within them, a cheeky pair of oxygen atoms. Like this (oxygen atoms are shown red):

Now, this is a picture of butyl ethanoate (aka butyl acetate – smells of apples, by the way) and is a short-ish example of an ester. Fats generally contain much longer chains, and there are three of those chains, and the oxygen bit is stuck to a glycerol backbone.

Thus, the thick, oily, greasy stuff that you think of as fat is a triglyceride: an ester made up of three fatty acid molecules and glycerol (aka glycerine, yup, same stuff in baking). But it’s the ester bit we want to focus on for now, because esters react with alkalis (and acids, for that matter) in a process called hydrolysis.

Fats are esters. Three fatty acid chains are attached to a glycerol “backbone”.

The clue here is in the name – “hydro” suggesting water – because what happens is that the ester splits where those (red) oxygens are. On one side of that split, the COO group of atoms gains a metal ion (or a hydrogen, if the reaction was carried out under acidic conditions), while the other chunk of the molecule ends up with an OH on the end. We now have a carboxylate salt (or a carboxylic acid) and an alcohol. Effectively, we’ve split the molecule into two pieces and tidied up the ends with atoms from water.

Still with me? This is where it gets clever. Having mixed our fat with alkali and split our fat molecules up, we have two things: fatty acid salts (hydrocarbon chains with, e.g. COONa+ on the end) and glycerol. Glycerol is extremely useful stuff (and, funnily enough, antiviral) but we’ll put that aside for the moment, because it’s the other part that’s really interesting.

What we’ve done here is produce a molecule that has a polar end (the charged bit, e.g. COONa+) and a non-polar end (the long chain of Cs and Hs). Here’s the thing: polar substances tend to only mix with other polar substances, while non-polar substances only mix with other non-polar substances.

You may be thinking this is getting technical, but honestly, it’s not. I guarantee you’ve experienced this: think, for example, what happens if you make a salad dressing with oil and vinegar (which is mostly water). The non-polar oil floats on top of the polar water and the two won’t stay mixed. Even if you give them a really good shake, they separate out after a few minutes.

The dark blue oily layer in this makeup remover doesn’t mix with the watery colourless layer.

There are even toiletries based around this principle. This is an eye and lip makeup remover designed to remove water-resistant mascara and long-stay lipstick. It has an oily layer and a water-based layer. To use it, you give the container a good shake and use it immediately. The oil in the mixture removes any oil-based makeup, while the water part removes anything water-based. If you leave the bottle for a minute or two, it settles back into two layers.

But when we broke up our fat molecules, we formed a molecule which can combine with both types of substance. One end will mix with oily substances, and the other end mixes with water. Imagine it as a sort of bridge, joining two things that otherwise would never be connected (see, literal connections!)

There are a few different names for this type of molecule. When we’re talking about food, we usually use “emulsifier” – a term you’ll have seen on food ingredients lists. The best-known example is probably lecithin, which is found in egg yolks. Lecithin is the reason mayonnaise is the way it is – it allows oil and water to combine to give a nice, creamy product that stays mixed, even if it’s left on a shelf for months.

When we’re talking about soaps and detergents, we call these joiny-up molecules “surfactants“. You’re less likely to have seen that exact term on cosmetic ingredients lists, but you will (if you’ve looked) almost certainly have seen one of the most common examples, which is sodium laureth sulfate (or sodium lauryl sulfate), because it turns up everywhere: in liquid soap, bubble bath, shampoo and even toothpaste.

I won’t get into the chemical makeup of sodium laureth sulfate, as it’s a bit different. I’m going to stick to good old soap bars. A common surfactant molecule that you’ll find in those is sodium stearate, which is just like the examples I was talking about earlier: a long hydrocarbon chain with COONa+ stuck on the end. The hydrocarbon end, or “tail”, is hydrophobic (“water-hating”), and only mixes with oily substances. The COONa+ end, or “head”, is hydrophilic (“water loving”) and only mixes with watery substances.

Bars of soap contain sodium stearate.

This is perfect because dirt is usually oily, or is trapped in oil. Soap allows that oil to mix with the water you’re using to wash, so that both the oil, and anything else it might be harbouring, can be washed away.

Which brings us back to the wretched virus. Sars-CoV-2 has a lipid bilayer, that is, a membrane made of two layers of lipid (fatty) molecules. Virus particles stick to our skin and, because of that membrane, water alone does a really bad job of removing them. However, the water-hating tail ends of surfacant molecules are attracted to the virus’s outer fatty surface, while the water-loving head ends are attracted to the water that’s, say, falling out of your tap. Basically, soap causes the virus’s membrane to dissolve, and it falls apart and is destroyed. Victory is ours – hurrah!

Hand sanitisers also destroy viruses. Check out this excellent Compound Interest graphic (click the image for more).

Who knew a nearly-5000 year-old weapon would be effective against such a modern scourge? (Well, yes, virologists, obviously.) The more modern alcohol hand gels do much the same thing, but not quite as effectively – if you have access to soap and water, use them!

Of course, all this only works if you wash your hands thoroughly. I highly recommend watching this video, which uses black ink to demonstrate what needs to happen with the soap. I thought I was washing my hands properly until I watched it, and now I’m actually washing my hands properly.

You may be thinking at this point (if you’ve made it this far), “hang on, if the ancient Babylonians were making soap nearly 5000 years ago, it must be quite easy to make… ooh, could I make soap?!” And yes, yes it is and yes you can. Believe me, if the apocolypse comes I shall be doing just that. People rarely think about soap in disaster movies, which is a problem, because without a bit of basic hygine it won’t be long before the hero is either puking his guts up or dying from a minor wound infection.

Here’s the thing though, it’s potentially dangerous to make soap, because most of the recipes you’ll find (I won’t link to any, but a quick YouTube search will turn up several – try looking for “saponification“) involve lye. Lye is actually a broad term that covers a couple of different chemicals, but most of the time when people say lye these days, they mean pure sodium hydroxide.

Pure sodium hydroxide is usually supplied as pellets.

Pure sodium hydroxide comes in the form of pellets. It’s dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, precisely because it’s so good at breaking down fats and proteins, i.e. the stuff that humans are made of, it’s really, really corrosive and will give you an extremely nasty burn. Remember that scene in the movie Fight Club? Yes, that scene? Well, that. (Follow that link with extreme caution.)

And secondly, when sodium hydroxide pellets are mixed with water, the solution gets really, really hot.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realise that a really hot, highly corrosive, solution is potentially a huge disaster waiting to happen. So, and I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT attempt to make your own soap unless you have done a lot of research AND you have ALL the appropriate safety equipment, especially good eye protection.

And there we are. Soap is ancient and awesome, and full of interesting chemistry. Make sure you appreciate it every time you wash your hands, which ought to be frequently!

Stay safe, everyone. Take care, and look after yourselves.


Want something non-sciency to distract you? Why not check out my fiction blog: the fiction phial. There are loads of short stories, and even (recently) a poem. Enjoy!

If you’re studying from home, have you got your Pocket Chemist yet? Why not grab one? It’s a hugely useful tool, and by buying one you’ll be supporting this site – it’s win-win!

Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2020. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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The Chronicles of the Chronicle Flask: 2019

Happy New Year, everyone! Usually, I write this post in December but somehow things have got away from me this year, and I find myself in January. Oops. It’s still early enough in the month to get away with a 2019 round-up, isn’t it? I’m sure it is.

It was a fun year, actually. I wrote several posts with International Year of the Periodic table themes, managed to highlight the tragically-overlooked Elizabeth Fulhame, squeezed in something light-hearted about the U.K.’s weird use of metric and imperial units and discovered the recipe for synthetic poo. Enjoy!

Newland’s early table of the elements

January started with a reminder that 2019 had been officially declared The Year of the Periodic Table, marking 150 years since Dmitri Mendeleev discovered the “Periodic System”. The post included a quick summary of his work, and of course mentioned the last four elements to be officially named: nihonium (113), moscovium (115), tennessine (117) and oganesson (118). Yes, despite what oh-so-many periodic tables still in widespread use suggest (sort it out in 2020, exam boards, please), period 7 is complete, all the elements have been confirmed, and they all have ‘proper’ names.

February featured a post about ruthenium. Its atomic number being not at all significant (there might be a post about rhodium in 2020 😉). Ruthenium and its compounds have lots of uses, including cancer treatments, catalysis, and exposing latent fingerprints in forensic investigations.

March‘s entry was all about a little-known female chemist called Elisabeth Fulhame. She only discovered catalysis. Hardly a significant contribution to the subject. You can’t really blame all those (cough, largely male, cough) chemists for entirely ignoring her work and giving the credit to Berzelius. Ridiculous to even suggest it.

An atom of Mendeleevium, atomic number 101

April summarised the results of the Element Tales Twitter game started by Mark Lorch, in which chemists all over Twitter tried to connect all the elements in one, long chain. It was great fun, and threw up some fascinating element facts and stories. One of my favourites was Mark telling us that when he cleared out his Grandpa’s flat he discovered half a kilogram of sodium metal as well as potassium cyanide and concentrated hydrochloric acid. Fortunately, he managed to stop his family throwing it all down the sink (phew).

May‘s post was written with the help of the lovely Kit Chapman, and was a little trot through the discoveries of five elements: carbon, zinc, helium, francium and tennessine, making the point that elements are never truly discovered by a single person, no matter what the internet (and indeed, books) might tell you.

In June I wrote about something that had been bothering me a while: the concept of describing processes as “chemical” and “physical” changes. It still bothers me. The arguments continue…

In July I came across a linden tree in a local park, and it smelled absolutely delightful. So I wrote about it. Turns out, the flowers contain one of my all-time favourite chemicals (at least in terms of smell): benzaldehyde. As always, natural substances are stuffed full of chemicals, and anyone suggesting otherwise is at best misinformed, at worst outright lying.

Britain loves inches.

In August I wrote about the UK’s unlikely system of units, explaining (for a given value of “explaining”) our weird mishmash of metric and imperial units. As I said to a confused American just the other day, the UK is not on the metric system. The UK occasionally brushes fingers with the metric system, and then immediately denies that it wants anything to do with that sort of thing, thank you very much. This was my favourite post of the year and was in no way inspired by my obsession with the TV adaptation of Good Omens (it was).

In September I returned to one of my favourite targets: quackery. This time it was amber teething necklaces. These are supposed to work (hmm) by releasing succinic acid from the amber beads into the baby’s skin where it… soothes the baby by… some unexplained mechanism. They don’t work and they’re a genuine choking hazard. Don’t waste your money.

October featured a post explaining why refilling plastic bottles might not be quite as simple as you thought. Sure, we all need to cut down on plastic use, but there are good reasons why shops have rules about what you can, and can’t, refill and they’re not to do with selling more bottles.

November continued the environmental theme with a post was all about some new research into super-slippery coatings that might be applied to all sorts of surfaces, not least ceramic toilet bowls, with the goal of saving some of the water that’s currently used to rinse and clean such surfaces. The best bit about this was that I discovered that synthetic poo is a thing, and that the recipe includes miso. Yummy.

Which brings us to… December, in which I described some simple, minimal-equipment electrolysis experiments that Louise Herbert from STEM Learning had tested out during some teaching training exercises. Got a tic tac box, some drawing pins and a 9V battery? Give it a go!

Well, there we have it. That’s 2019 done and dusted. It’s been fun! I wonder what sort of health scares will turn up for “guilty January”? Won’t be long now…


Like the Chronicle Flask’s Facebook page for regular updates, or follow @chronicleflask on Twitter. Content is © Kat Day 2020. You may share or link to anything here, but you must reference this site if you do. If you enjoy reading my blog, please consider buying me a coffee through Ko-fi using the button below.
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