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The great dilemma within science


Sponges have the weirdest forms of fatty acids
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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We worked out the synthesis of these compounds, and then discovered something, which was sort of, almost amusing. Where is it? I just saw it here... Namely, we wanted to work on the biological function of these, what are they doing in these cells, and I thought I saw this somewhere. Oh yeah, here. Well, one of the functions of cholesterol is cell membranes, so we started looking at the cell membranes of sponges, and the two components of cell membranes are basically the sterol, and we’d already discovered that the sterol is very unusual, and the other one is a phospholipid. Lipid means lipid, the fatty acid constituents of the phospho-, of course, because it was phosphorylated, but I’ll talk just about the structure of fatty acids. Well, phospholipids, in general, again have the usual fatty acids there, C16, C18, 16 to 18 carbon atoms, one or two double bonds, things that everyone knows, oleic acid, palmitic acid, you know, people even who don’t know any chemistry know about saturated fatty acids, cis fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and it turns out that in ordinary cell membranes there are very few, and they have a certain kind, the trans are not... the cis don’t fit well, and they are only a certain length, and it’s very dull chemistry. The chemistry, and not the biology, but the chemistry, very dull. And what would you discover in sponges, you discover again the sponges have the weirdest forms of fatty acids, and I circled them only with alkyl groups, so instead of being 16 or 18, some of them are as long as 30 carbon atoms, so they are absurdly long, they are branched, they are complicated, and you wonder what’s going on here with sponges? And of course sponges, in a way are evolutionary, they are also animals although we don’t look at it this way, but they are a dead-end branch that really didn’t continue through the apes, and you and me, so that is still an unsolved question, why they did all this, and by that time I closed my lab. But this turned out to be... this shows you how we got from one thing to another, to a third thing, and I noticed just here a very charming area... I’ve got a paper here somewhere. Well, you see here a picture, for instance, of horsing around diving. This was, of course one of the fringe benefits, this was in the Maldives, and this was on a Soviet oceanographic vessel. I was there, with the Soviets at that time, in 1989, I still did quite a lot of work, and they were very well equipped with oceanographic vessels, much better than we had. So I was on this one with my son, with whom I was in this case diving in some very cold water, near Monterey, with the Stanford Marine Biology Lab.

But I want to show... I just thought I saw that here, which is quite amusing, namely, one of my favourite... a post doctorate fellow in Belgium... Oh, here it is... named Ben Tursch, who was a fantastic diver, and had then organised a small marine biology laboratory in a small island off the coast of New Guinea, and that was on his boat in New Guinea, and this is my wife sitting there. And then, in celebration of my... what birthday was this? Ah, right. I had once a great party known as the Millipub Party, the thousandth publication, and a lot of my students came together, and we released a thousand balloons, and so on. It was a mad thing, it was out in New Guinea, and he sent me this fake paper, and it was prepared exactly like a scientific paper, in exactly the style, and he managed to persuade a chemical journal to bind it in their reprint binder, so when he sent it to me I for a moment thought this man really, really, you know, did my... did something here that he shouldn’t have, namely published a paper with fake authors and Carl Djerassi. But it turns out to be a wonderful fake paper, which in the end showed that what we isolated was really only a hydrocarbon, which was bent that way with the shape of a... a steroid. It was just very funny, very amusing.

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: Stanford Marine Biology Lab, Millipub Party, cholesterol, sponges, sterol, phospholipid, Bernard Tursch

Duration: 5 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008