Butyric acid, a very smelly molecule

Did you know that you’re walking around with an incredibly sensitive chemical detector, capable of detecting and identifying substances at levels as low as 0.2 parts per billion (I’m talking about gases here, but if you think about this ratio in another way it’s about half a second in a century), and possibly even lower? Capable of distinguishing between millions and very probably trillions of different substances and mixtures of substances?

nose

Did you nose you were carrying around a very sensitive chemical detector?

Well you are. It’s your nose. Dogs, of course, can do even better than humans (bloodhounds can easily detect substances in the parts per trillion range) but our noses are still pretty impressive.

We are particularly good with nasty smells, for very sensible evolutionary reasons. If it smells bad it’s probably bad for you, stay away and definitely don’t eat it.

Which brings me to butyric acid, or butanoic acid (to give it its official IUPAC name, which literally no one uses outside of A-level chemistry). Butyric acid is a small molecule, early in the list of carboxylic acids, and you might imagine a chemistry student would meet it, well, if not frequently then at least once or twice during their studies. After all barely a week goes by when we don’t crack open the ethanoic acid (also known as acetic acid, the stuff that gives vinegar its pungent smell).

And yet I managed to go for years and years without ever knowingly coming across the stuff. I knew about its theoretical existence of course, and never really thought about it much beyond that. After all, you can’t use every chemical can you? I obediently followed my lab book instructions and then later specialised in physical chemistry, so the opportunity to fiddle around with cocktails of interesting organic molecules of my own choosing never really arose.

Butyric-acid

Butyric acid: it’s very stinky.

When I finally did get my hands on a bottle of butyric acid I quickly learned why it had never featured in an undergraduate practical task.

It stinks.

Of horrible things.

Everyone that smells it seems to identify it slightly differently, but descriptions fall out of the: ‘pooh, farts, sick, smelly feet, sweat, gone-off curry, sour milk’ general category of bad smells. Occasionally someone will generously suggest parmesan cheese, but really, it’s not that nice.

It’s not a smell that goes away, either. It’s a stench that just keeps on giving. One of my students managed to get a tiny drop of it on a lab bench and, despite trying to clean it up, the smell lingered for weeks. In fact it was quite interesting. Most people could smell it for about two weeks (as in, they walked into the room and immediately said “ugh, what’s that smell?!”) After that fewer and fewer people immediately reacted, but every now and then someone would walk in and complain of a horrible stink, which by then no one else was really noticing. I assume these were individuals with unfortunately (in this situation) sensitive noses, perhaps with great futures ahead of them as chefs, sommeliers and perfumers. Although some fairly recent research has suggested that ability to recognise smells has more to do with training than innate ability. Still, who nose? (Hehe)

So what is butyric acid and why is it so stinky? It’s name actually comes from the Latin word butyrum (or buturum) meaning butter, because it was first extracted from rancid butter by the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul (bet he loved his job). It’s a fatty acid, which means it’s one of the building blocks of fats. The fat molecule made from butyric acid makes up 3-4% of butter, and tied up in this form it’s completely innocuous. However once those fats start to break down, the evil butyric acid starts to be released.

italian-parmesan-cheese

Probably the least offensive thing associated with butyric acid. Probably.

It’s generally found in dairy products, and is a product of anaerobic fermentation (that is, fermentation that happens in the absence of oxygen), hence the links to butter and parmesan cheese. Anaerobic fermentation also happens in the colon. Hence, ahem, the pooh smell. Oh yes, and butyric acid is also what gives vomit that distinctive, smell-it-a-mile-off, odour.

And this, of course, is why we’re so good at detecting it. Humans can pick this stuff up at 10 parts per million (going back to those time analogies, that’s the equivalent of 32 seconds out of a year) which explains why the stench appeared to linger on and on – that single drop of pure butyric acid would have contained something like a thousand trillion molecules. Evolution has trained us to detect and avoid this stuff because it’s very probably a sign of disease and potential infection (gone-off food, vomit, faeces etc). This is stuff we need to steer well clear of to avoid getting ill, and so nature has given us a handy mechanism by which to detect and avoid it, of the “yuck! What is that smell?! I’m out of here!” variety.

pineapple

From nasty to really quite nice: you can make pineapple scents from butyric acid.

Funnily enough though, it does have its uses. There are molecules called esters which can be made from butyric acid (that’s why we were experimenting with it in the first place) which actually smell rather nice. In particular there’s one that has a lovely apple-pineapple smell, and another that smells of apricots and pears. As a result, these much nicer-smelling substances are used as food and perfume additives.

The salts of butyric acid (butyrates, or butanoates) have interesting effects on the cells that might be in your colon. Butyrate actually slows down the growth of cancer cells in this area, while at the same time somehow managing to promote healthy, normal cells. Exactly how this works isn’t well understood, but it seems to be linked to dietary fibre. Yes, I’m afraid to say you can’t swap cheese for bran flakes and vegetables. You still need to eat your fibre.

Butyric acid also helps to prevent salmonella bacteria from taking hold in poultry, and as result it’s used as a chicken feed additive (lucky chickens). It’s also been used as a fishing bait additive, particularly for carp bait. And perhaps not surprisingly it’s been used, along with a cocktail of other stinky stuff, in stink bombs.

So even the stinkiest of molecules has it’s uses, and maybe it’s not so bad after all. Makes you wonder how anyone ever developed a taste for parmesan cheese though, doesn’t it?
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Basic Chemistry

basic

The other end of the pH scale.

When you start writing a blog it’s hard to predict what people will find most interesting. Inevitably, it’s not what you expected. For example, two of The Chronicle Flask’s most-read posts are about rhubarb and lemons. Perhaps people are more interested in fruit than I ever imagined. Or perhaps I’m getting a lot of hits from people mistakenly looking for recipes.

Or maybe it’s because both feature the ever-interesting topic of acids. In which case, I should probably write something else about acids.

So, this is a post about bases.

Just in case this spectacular bit of contrariness isn’t immediately obvious, bases – some of which are called alkalis (I’m coming to that in a minute) – are at the other end of the pH scale to acids. Acids are the things with a pH value of less than 7, and bases have pH values of more than 7. So basically (hoho), they’re the opposites of acids.

whysoblueI’m using the word base deliberately, and not just because of all the brilliant chemistry puns you can make with it. The more familiar word is probably alkali, but while all alkalis are bases, not all bases are alkalis.

Alkalis are often described as soluble bases. More precisely, alkalis are produced from the metals in group 1 (the ‘alkali’ metals) and group 2 (the ‘alkaline earth’ metals) of the periodic table. The more general term, base, applies to anything that can neutralise an acid. Chemists have another definition: a base is a proton (H+ ion) acceptor, while acids are proton donors (actually chemists have yet another definition, but the proton acceptor one is the one that gets trotted out most often).

The distinction between alkalis and bases does matter to chemists and the two types of substance usually look quite different – bases tend to come in solid lumps or powders (baking soda, for example) and alkalis are more likely to arrive as a solution in a bottle – but in terms of chemistry they both get involved in the same type of chemical reaction, which is neutralising acids.

Indigestion tablet advertWe make use of this all the time, whether we realise it or not. For example if you’re suffering from acid indigestion you probably reach for the indigestion tablets. An advertising campaign for a particular brand of these says that they “turn excess acid into water and other natural substances”. Those ‘natural substances’ are salts – presumably it was decided that the word ‘salt’ had too many negative connotations (which is probably true: how many people would pop a pill that promised to turn into salt in their tummy?) The main ingredient in the tablets in question is calcium carbonate; a base that reacts with stomach acid to produce calcium chloride. Which is definitely a salt, if not the one most people think of when they hear the word.

Tangentially, calcium chloride is also a food additive with the E number E509. It falls into the category of anti-caking agents, which is sort of funny when you think about it.

Anyhoo, that’s one place you use a base (rhyming now as well as punning, sorry). You’re actually making one yourself every time you eat, because your liver produces a substance called bile (bloggers love bile) which helpfully neutralises the acid your stomach produces. If it didn’t, your intestines would get damaged by that acid, so it’s important stuff.

Interestingly, in a lot of the older medical traditions (you know, swallow three leeches with meals, turn around three times under a full moon and bury a toad under a horseradish in a mock turtle) the body’s health depended on the balance of four ‘humors’, or vital fluids: blood, phlegm, ‘yellow bile‘ (choler), and ‘black bile‘. If you had too much of the last two, it was supposed to cause aggression and depression, and in fact the Greek names for them are the root of the words cholera and melancholia.

It’s interesting that in the 21st century many people are obsessed with ‘alkalinizing‘ the body (just check out the comments on that lemons post) when for thousands of years people have understood that too much alkali is probably a bad thing. Public understanding of science has really moved on hasn’t it?

soapBile does something else that’s really quite important in the body, it helps you to digest fats. Bases are generally really good at breaking down fats. This is another thing that’s been known for quite a while, ever since soap was first discovered about (sources vary quite considerably on this) six thousand years ago. Soap is made by a process of saponification, in which fats react with a strong base, usually sodium hydroxide (otherwise known as caustic soda, or sometimes lye). This breaks apart the fat molecules to make glycerol and carboxylate salts (they’re the soap bit). Because of this use, sodium hydroxide features in a famous, and rather gruesome scene, in the film Fight Club.

firediamondNaOH

The fire diamond for NaOH

Because bases are so good at breaking down fats they’re actually surprisingly (or not, if you’ve just watched that Fight Club clip)dangerous, especially because they’re also quite good at breaking down proteins. Your skin is mostly fat and protein, so they can do quite a bit of damage. Remember fire diamonds? The one for sodium hydroxide has a 3 in the blue box, which means that short exposure could cause ‘serious temporary’ or ‘moderate residual’ injury – yikes.

Corrosive hazard symbol

Corrosive hazard symbol

The European hazard symbol is even more alarming, featuring a hand with holes being burned through it. Of course, acids have symbols like these too, but people sort of expect acids to do this kind of stuff. Whereas they’re often (unless they’re chemists) strangely unaware of the dangers of alkalis. For example there’s the a famous, and gruesome, story of the serial killer John George Haigh, who famously dissolved the bodies of his victims in oil drums full of concentrated sulfuric acid. It worked quite well, but he was caught eventually when the police searched his workshop and found sludge containing three human gallstones and part of a denture.

Sulfuric acid is a particularly powerful acid, and is undoubtedly incredibly dangerous stuff, but sodium hydroxide is not much safer. It will cause instantaneous and serious burns, and solid sodium hydroxide gets incredibly hot if it’s added to water. In fact, the water will quickly boil if you’re not careful.

In May last year American Carmen Blandin Tarleton was in the news because she had just received a face transplant. She needed it because her estranged husband had doused her with concentrated sodium hydroxide six years previously. She had undergone fifty-five operations before she made the decision to get the transplant. The pictures are really quite horrific. I won’t reproduce one here; you can see the result of the attack if you follow the link above. Tarleton has also written a book about her experiences. She was left blind and horribly disfigured, with burns to 80% of her body. Doctors described it as “the most horrific injury a human being could suffer”. Sodium hydroxide is not nice stuff.

It’s surprisingly, shockingly, easy to buy sodium hydroxide. Because it’s used in soap-making, you can get it quite easily. It’s even available on Amazon. And of course it’s an ingredient in lots of drain cleaners available in supermarkets. When they say you should wear gloves to handle this stuff, it’s definitely not health and safety gone mad. You really should. Even I would (and I’m really bad about wearing gloves).

So spare a thought for bases. They’re just as interesting, and certainly no nicer or safer than their acidic cousins. In fact, they’re so good at breaking down fat and protein that they could arguably be more dangerous. And next time you’re cleaning out your oven, do remember to wear your gloves.