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Studying the cell membrane of sponges and my Millipub Party

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Work on sponges: setting up underwater labs
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I had not worked in that area before, in natural products, where we work primarily on structure, and now we worked on function and biosynthesis. Why do sponges make these things, these bizarre things, which are not present in terrestrial organisms, and secondly, how do they make them? Well, the only way you can do the how is through radioactive tracer work, in which you think of certain precursors, which you feed to the, to the sponge, let us say, and that is how biosynthetic work in natural products has been done with plants, or animals, so you inject a radioactive precursor in the plant. How do you do this in a, in a sponge, which grows in the water, underneath, sometimes a depth that you can’t get to, and how do you inject it in there, you know, there’s water all round and it just gets dissolved? So we had to work out ways of getting it, with sort of, these little holes in sponges, with plugs in them, but then this had to be- it turned out this takes the- then they had to be kept for quite a number of days, weeks, or months, in an aquatic environment, which we couldn’t do in the lab, so we established underwater labs at depths of 40, 50, 60 ft. Platforms that were anchored, and where we then could dive back, and it meant that every one of my students had to be- who was willing to work in this field, had to get, of course, had to be checked out for scuba diving, which was a fringe benefit that many of the students loved, who’d never done any scuba diving before. So when I interviewed graduates students, the first question I asked them- do you know how to swim, you know, and they’d think, you know, what other personal questions is he going to ask, and the next one was scuba diving, and when they said no, I said, would you like to- would you be prepared to be checked out, which was quite a commitment? But then the fringe benefit was- and where would you want to do it, and I said- well, the Bahamas, and the Great Barrier Reef, and New Guinea, and the Mediterranean, near Naples, and etc, and Africa, so that turned out to one enormous fringe benefit, and we did this in tropical waters primarily was a really interesting one.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Bahamas, Great Barrier Reef, New Guinea, Mediterranean, Naples, Africa

Duration: 2 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008