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Google Features Percy Julian, Legendary African-American Chemist

What a fantastic surprise this morning on the 115th anniversary of Percy Julian’s birth:


Screenshot of Google search page on 11 April 2014 features chemist, Percy Julian. Credit: Google

Screenshot of Google Doodle on 11 April 2014 features chemist, Percy Julian. (Credit: Google)


I’m beside myself with joy to see this pioneering chemist be recognized by the most prominent search engine in the world.

I don’t know where to begin about Julian but I’m sure that many of you have seen The Forgotten Genius, the PBS-produced NOVA life story of the chemist. Julian suffered many indignities in his training, from being denied dormitory residence while earning his B.S. at DePauw University to progression to racial issues limiting him to a M.S. at Harvard. He later completed his Ph.D. work at the University of Vienna in 1931.

Julian is probably best known for using natural products as a template for making drugs. His first major feat, the synthesis of physostigmine, a cholinesterase inhibitor from the Calabar bean used to treat glaucoma has been recognized by ACS as a National Historic Chemical Landmark at DePauw University. This 11-step synthesis from phenacetin, the active metabolite of acetaminophen, was completed with his Vienna colleague, Josef Pikl, and students in the laboratory.

Julian synthesized cortisone, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone from the Calabar bean compound, stigmasterol. Later, at Glidden Paint Company, a happy accident led Julian to find that soybean extract (soya oil) also contained the 17-member sterol nucleus, a much more accessible source. At this time, we had absolutely no treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. But cortisone, then made by Merck in a laborious 36-step synthesis, was found in 1949 to transform the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. However, Merck’s starting material was deoxycholic acid from bovine bile. Julian’s synthetic work beginning with sigmasterol.

I could go on. So I strongly suggest that readers consult the ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark dedication and, please, watch The Forgotten Genius. You should buy the DVD, as I did for teaching in my pharmacology classes, but you can watch it in segments at the PBS NOVA page.

Promoting Chemistry’s Positive Public Image

D'ohh, no eye protection. Credit: David R. Carroll, Creative Commons

D’ohh, no eye protection. Credit: David R. Carroll, Creative Commons

I had an opportunity earlier this month to write a short “Inside Science” piece for the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer newspapers. These two publications are among those under the McClatchy Company umbrella of 30 U.S. newspapers with a history dating back to 1857 and the founding of what is now The Sacramento Bee.

I was offered great latitude in writing a piece that was to run between 401 and 426 words. Our chemblogging community has been debating how best to address public chemophobia – or whether to even use the term “chemophobia” – in emphasizing to general audiences that not all chemicals are toxic at levels to which one is normally exposed.

I decided to write about the most central and, if you will, magical chemistry that happens around us everyday and sustains our very existence: photosynthesis. You can read, “Chemistry? It’s a Natural” here in the Charlotte paper, or “Life depends on the chemical reactions of plants, algae and microbes,” in the Raleigh paper.

Just look up and around you. Virtually all life on Earth depends on plants, algae and specialized microbes performing chemical reactions – photosynthesis – that capture the light energy from the sun to produce life-giving chemicals – the unlocking of oxygen from water and the capturing of carbon dioxide from the air to create glucose and other carbohydrates. In most cases, this light-capturing conversion begins with a green pigment in chloroplasts called chlorophyll, itself a magnesium-containing chemical with similarities to heme in our hemoglobin.

I go on to speak, of course, about the massive amount of photosynthesis carried out by phytoplankton and the estimation that about half of the planet’s oxygen results from marine photosynthetic reactions.

And your dear natural products pharmacologist couldn’t resist the urge to speak about secondary metabolites such as indigo and the opiates.

I didn’t count at the time, but the words “chemical” or “chemistry” appeared 16 times in the articles, approximately 4% of the word count.

Writing with a short word limit is very challenging, unlike writing blogposts. Including my self-quote above, this piece runs 463 words without even trying.

Unfortunately for my efforts, these articles received far less attention than I had hoped owing to the West Virginia (4-methylcyclohexane)methanol release a few days later.

But I’d like for these articles to represent how I’m going to approach chemistry education this year. I’ve taken to heart last June’s post by Janet Stemwedel – someone I’ve been learning from since 2005 – that making fun of people who are not well-versed in chemistry or risk assessment is not the best way for us scientists to build trust and promote education.

What do you think? Were my pieces too simple for a regional newspaper audience? And how are you, as a chemistry ambassador, going to reach out to the public in 2014.

Country of Discovery Periodic Table of the Elements

The Periodic Table of the Elements and their Country of Discovery. Clicking to embiggen and make legible will open a new page at Smithsonian.com. Credit: Jaime B Gallagher @jaimebgall/Smithsonian.com

The Periodic Table of the Elements and their Country of Discovery. Clicking to embiggen and make legible will open a new page at Smithsonian.com. Credit: Jaime B Gallagher @jaimebgall/Smithsonian.com

Admit it. You have a Periodic Table of the Elements shower curtain. Don’t you?

Dmitri Mendeleev (and Julius Lothar Meyer, 1870) might have never predicted that his 1869 scientific tool would give rise not only to consumer products for the chemistry enthusiast but also a graphic visual adopted for all manner of non-scientific purposes:

The Periodic Table of Beer Styles

The Periodic Table of Drupal Modules

The Periodic Table of Typefaces

The Periodic Table of Islam

…and, for balance, The Periodic Table of Atheists and Antitheists

(yes, please add your own favorites in the comments below)

Well, my morning coffee Twitter feed brought me a new version that’s 1) about actual chemistry and 2) useful for educational purposes.

A story in this week’s Smithsonian.com Smart News displays the periodic table of the country of element discovery as constructed by Glaswegian chemistry PhD student, science communicator and dancer, Jaime B Gallagher (Twitter @JamieBGall). I’m reminded that the stories behind each element not only tell us history, but also how early chemists differentiated between the elements.

While Gallagher tries to give credit to multiple countries for some of the discoveries, debate will undoubtedly ensue. This is is good thing. It’ll get folks talking about chemistry.

Lithium, for example, was discovered by Swedish chemist Johan Arfwedson who liberated it from petalite ore, discovered by Brazilian Jose Bonifacio de Andrade de Silva while visiting the Swedish countryside. Swede Jans Jacob Berzelius named it lithos (for stone – think lithotrypsy). But it wasn’t isolated until the independent work of Sir Humphrey Davy in England and William Brande in Sweden. So while Gallagher is probably right to fully credit Sweden for lithium, one could make an argument that the UK flag should partially be at position 3.

The story might also get us talking about modern uses of the elements. For example, a large deposit of lithium has just been discovered in Wyoming, a find that’s likely to put the States in a better spot as international demand for lithium grows rapidly.

And while chest-thumping U.S. citizens might want to boast international superiority, we’re only tied for third (or fourth…with France!) for the discovery of 17 elements. The UK is tops with 23 followed by Sweden and Germany with 19 each.

Have fun looking at this table and consider using it in your science and public education efforts. There’s something here for everyone.

And before my graphic designer relatives chime in, yes, Jaime should have enlisted the help of a professional illustrator for color and typeface choices. But, hey, he’s already done the content legwork.



Why Isn’t Caffeine Called “Theoanaleptine”?

This question came to me as I read last week’s C&EN cover story by Dr. Lauren K. Wolf on caffeine toxicity entitled, “Caffeine Jitters.”

By the way, read it if you haven’t — it’s open-access on C&EN right now and remains the most-read (last 7 days), most-commented (last 30 days), and most-shared (last 30 days) article since it appeared. Lauren did a terrific job of sifting through decades of information on the physiological effects of caffeine to make sense out of the true health hazards of caffeine consumption at “normal” and excessive doses.

Caffeine, a natural alkaloid found predominantly in coffee beans, is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine (not IUPAC, but you get it). In the body, the hepatic cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to theophylline, theobromine, and paraxanthine.

The cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to one of three dimethylxanthines, with paraxanthine predominating. Credit: C&EN

The cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to one of three dimethylxanthines, with paraxanthine predominating. Credit: C&EN


Divine chemicals

Of note, theobromine and theophylline also occur in nature. Theobromine is found in cacao beans. Because chocolate is heavenly, it was given the Greek name for “food of the gods”: theos – god; broma – food.

Correct, theobromine contains no bromine. Had it contained bromine, the name might have been the same but would have been derived from the Greek bromos, or “stench” – “stench of the gods,” which, clearly, it is not.

Stimulant of the Gods. Available now at the Pharmacopolis store at Zazzle.

Stimulant of the Gods. Available now at the Pharmacopolis store at Zazzle.

Theophylline also occurs naturally and had been extensively used as a bronchodilator for folks with asthma. Primatene tablets used to contain theophylline but today are ephedrine. Again, theophylline has the godly theo- prefix while the -phylline suffix indicated that it comes from leaves.

And apologies to paraxanthine. It’s known historically for having first been isolated from urine in 1883. Not until the 1980s was it shown to occur in some plants. In any case, the biosynthesis of the di- and tri-methylxanthines originate with xanthosine from purine metabolism.

So to my question. . .

Because caffeine is so widely worshiped, why is it not known as theoanaleptine? The Greek analeptikos means stimulant and the English term analeptic is defined as a stimulant drug.

So, why not?

My best guess is because caffeine was described in the literature prior to theophylline and theobromine. From M.J. Arnaud’s chapter in Caffeine (Springer, 1984):

The isolation of caffeine from green coffee beans was described in Germany in 1820 by Runge and confirmed the same year by von Giese. In France, Robiquet in 1823 and then Pelletier in 1826 independently discovered a white and volatile crystalline substance. The name “cofeina” appeared in 1823 in the “Dictionaire des termes de medécine” and the word “caffein” or “coffein” was used by Fechner in 1826.

Arnaud goes on to say that theobromine was discovered in cocoa beans in 1842 and theophylline in tea leaves in 1888.

So, caffeine had about a two-decade headstart in being named for its presence in coffee before related methylxanthines took on their divine monikers.

Sure, sure, caffeine is a well-recognized name that derives predictably from its source. But let’s live a little. Wouldn’t you rather be drinking the stimulant of the gods?

If you’re as excited about this as I am, you may purchase theoanaleptine coffee mugs here. They’ll set you apart from ever Tom, Dick, and Harriet who think they’re clever with their caffeine coffee mugs.

And even with accepting the new colloquial name of theoanaleptine, our friend Scicurious can still keep her tattoo unchanged.



Elion-Hitchings Building Tour: A Storify

  1. As discussed in my post last week, I had the opportunity on Saturday to tour the old Burroughs-Wellcome US headquarters building in Research Triangle Park, NC. Designed in 1969 by architect Paul Rudolph, the building was completed in 1972. The building became known as the Elion-Hitchings Building after BW scientists Trudy Elion and George Hitchings shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicinewith Sir James Black.The building was acquired by Glaxo when they merged with Wellcome in 1995 (Glaxo had built its US headquarters in RTP in 1983, just north of the BW property.).

    Now GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the company began liquidating buildings and consumer products over the last two years. When they announced their intent to sell the Elion-Hitchings Building in April, 2011, I suggested that someone purchase it to fashion into hipster condominiums. My hopes were dashed when United Therapeutics purchased it and two other buildings for $17.5 million in late June of this year. United Therapeutics has a 55-acre lot adjacent to the GSK property where they’ve constructed a new headquarters building of their own.

    What follows is a Storify compilation of my tweets from Saturday with photos that I sent out. I’ll post other photos later.

HHMI and Duke Celebrate the Lefkowitz Chemistry Nobel

As discussed in my previous post, I took a personal day off from work yesterday to bask in the excitement of a university community celebrating a Nobel prize for one of its most beloved researchers, Dr. Robert “Bob” Lefkowitz, MD. He joined Duke in 1973 when, he says, “it was not the powerhouse it is today.”

Lefkowitz will share the prize with his former trainee, Brian Kobilka, MD, now at Stanford University.

I had the honor of joining his laboratory’s champagne celebration in the morning and the Duke University press conference in the early afternoon. (The full 47-minute press conference streamed live and is archived here at Duke.).

I live barely three miles from Duke and had no idea when or if I’d ever have the chance to be so close to such an event. The Lefkowitz prize is particularly meaningful to me as he is a biochemist physician-scientist who also considers himself a pharmacologist. So, I write this not so much as a journalist but rather — as Duke Research Communications Director Karl Leif Bates put it — a fan boy.

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L’Embarras Des Richesses: ScienceOnline2013 and ScienceWriters2012

In this quiet moment on a rainy Saturday evening in North Carolina Piedmont, I lie here in awe of the breadth of creative talent and boundless enthusiasm that this place attracts.

Tonight at 5:00 pm Eastern time, a couple hundred folks or so learned that they had not scored a slot in the lottery for the remaining spaces at ScienceOnline2013. I won’t be there this year either but I can certainly understand the disappointment. This simple idea of Bora Zivkovic along with Let’s-Get-Together-and-See-Where-This-Goes Guy, Anton Zuiker, has grown from a small gathering of likeminded online science enthusiasts to become the South-By-Southwest of science meetings, now under the exceptional leadership of Karyn Traphagen.

I encourage everyone to stay on or sign up for the waitlist. Lots of plans change between now and late January so registration slots will most certainly open up.

Y’all come! Click for details.

But in the meantime, you might consider another possibility that just happens to be available this year very near to the same GPS coordinates: ScienceWriters2012, the annual conference of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the National Association of Science Writers.

Scheduled for October 26-30, 2012, ScienceWriters2012 will be headquartered at the very same hotel with a program crafted by a broad group of science communicators that include a subset of ScienceOnline folks. (For the record, we’re called Science Communicators of North Carolina, or SCONC.).

Here, look at the schedule yourself.

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Reddit AMA with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson. Credit: Patrick Queen/Columbia Magazine

I don’t know how many of you tune-in to these “Ask Me Anything” discussion threads at Reddit but I’ve been grooving on them since our colleague Derek Lowe did one back in March. In general, people of note can either propose their own session or be nominated to do so. Folks can ask them any question and the Reddit thread reflect their responses and discussion by others.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the giants in public communication of science. An astrophysicist who has been been the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium for the last 15 years, Tyson will soon re-launch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. The complete thread of Tyson’s AMA can be found here.

Here’s one of his answers that may hold special appeal to our C&EN readers:

Question: If you think 5 and 10 years from now, what are you most looking forward to in science? Any expectations?

Tyson: Cure for Cancer. Fully funded space exploration. Physics recognized as the foundation of chemistry. Chemistry recognized as the foundation of biology. And free market structured in a way that brings these discoveries to market efficiently and effectively.

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