This is shikimic acid. It is needed to make Tamiflu (oseltamivir), a common flu medication. Also in the picture is Chinese star anise, which is currently the source of the overwhelming majority of shikimic acid on the market.
Due to shortages of star anise and fear of pandemic flu, scientists are searching for alternative sources of shikimic acid. One possibility is genetically modified bacteria. Shikimic acid is a natural product, which means there are enzymes in the star anise plant that synthesize the shikimic acid from scratch. Scientists can take the DNA that codes for those enzymes and put it in a type of bacteria. That bacteria would then be able to make shikimic acid for us! It would be the same exact molecule, just made through fermentation.
Despite the relation to oseltamivir (see below), shikimic acid cannot be used to fight the flu. Oseltamivir sticks to a protein on the outside of the flu virus and prevents new baby flu viruses from bursting out of your cells to infect more cells. Shikimic acid doesn’t stick to this protein (which is why scientists go through so much trouble to make oseltamivir). If some wellness nut tells you to brew some star anise to cure the flu, know that it is 🐎💩. 😉 💕
This little bugger is capsaicin. My search through the literature for something interesting to say about this molecule was quite fruitful, but considering I have a lot of mama followers out there, I thought I would veer towards how its receptor is thought to be responsible for that motherf&$@er we call labor pain.
Capsaicin snuggles up with a protein called TRPV1, which is found on many nerves throughout our body. When the right stimulus activates TRPV1, we feel an intense burning pain. It is a nociceptor, which is fancy science speak for something that warns us when something bad is happening to our body, like getting burnt, frozen, cut, or hit. In addition to heat above 109F/43C, some chemicals like capsaicin can also stimulate TRPV1.
Though when in labor, your body doesn’t flood your baby maker with ghost peppers, a study found that TRPV1 and associated nerves are what may be responsible for cervical ripening and the feeling of a burning pitchfork being inserted into your abdomen and rotated during every contraction.😂(they did not describe labor pain that way, I took some artistic license based on my experience)😂💪🤱. Though normally TRPV1 is found all over your body, in late pregnancy and labor it essentially disappears from the body and is only found around the cervix. It is fascinating that our bodies transform so much during pregnancy, and it is exciting that one day we may discover why the f$&@ labor decided it needed to hurt so bad.
Sources: Tingaker, et al. Influence of pregnancy and labor on the occurrence of nerve fibers expressing the capsaicin receptor TRPV1 in human corpus and cervix uteri. Reproductive Bio and Endocrinology 6:(8) 2008
Frias and Merighi. Capsaicin, Nociception and Pain. Molecules. 21(6), 797. 2016
This is 5-geranoxypsoralen. It’s found in many citrus fruits, but at an especially high concentration in grapefruit. 🍊 When you take some medications, or eat food, or drink $12 fresh-pressed juices, or lick hallucinogenic frogs, etc., an enzyme called cytochrome P450 alters some of the foreign molecules you ingested so they are more easily cleared by your body (AKA pee it out). 🚽 This is one of the first steps in your body’s built-in detox system (so yes, your body detoxes the detox juice you just drank 😉). 5-geranoxypsoralen, however, inhbits cytochrome P450 (specifically CYP3A4), which means that if you drink grapefruit juice, the enzyme cannot modify those molecules to clear them. This is usually fine unless you are taking certain medications. 💊 When you are prescribed a medicine, the dose takes into account the amount that will be lost by cytochrome P450. But, if cytochrome P450 is knocked out by the grapefruit juice, it will increase the effective amount of medicine your body will get, sometimes with toxic side effects. 😱 So, PSA, always check your medications’ labels for warnings about citrus juice. Common contraindicated drugs are Lipitor (atorvastatin), Buspar (buspirone), and Uceris (budesonide).
I’ll preface this with “I still ate it,” but star fruit contains a deadly neurotoxin called caramboxin. 😱*clutches pearls*
Luckily, if you have normally functioning kidneys, caramboxin gets flushed out of your system and does absolutely no harm. In fact, my friend from Taiwan says they eat star fruit daily, and they’re all doing fine so, again, totally fine for most people to eat. However, if you have kidney disease, the toxin does not get removed and it can go on to interfere with your neurons.
Neurons pass messages around your body. Molecules called neurotransmitters are released from one neuron and passed to another in order to relay that message. The neurotransmitters fit snuggly into proteins called receptors on the next nerve. This is kind of like a lock and key. Once the receptor is “unlocked” by the neurotransmitter “key,” the nerve passes the message to another nerve, and so on. Caramboxin can “unlock” and stimulate some of these nerves by snuggling up to the receptor. Normally, turning on neurons is a very controlled process, so when caramboxin gets in there, it messes things up. Symptoms include mental confusion, vomiting, and seizures, and in some cases, coma and death.
Interestingly, an early symptom of caramboxin poisoning is intractable hiccups, so if that happens to you after eating star fruit, call the doctor and ask about some kidney labs!
This was my first star fruit ever! I don’t think I let it ripen enough, but it tasted like a wet tart apple. Should I wait longer next time based on that green color? No hiccups yet!😉
Pepitas, the inside of pumpkin seeds, fluoresce under UV light! It is a stunning coral orange color. This photo doesn’t quite do it justice. The compound causing the fluorescence is protochlorophillide, a precursor to chlorophyll. (Chlorophyll is also fluorescent under UV light, but it glows a deep red.)
The seeds themselves have a slight glow if you shine a black light on them but in my picture at the top, they are crushed with isopropanol (rubbing alcohol), which solubilizes the pigment. We found this fluorescence by mistake actually. Several things in your pantry fluoresce under UV light (like honey, canola oil, tonic water, and peanut butter) and my daughter and I were scanning our shelves for other surprises. Sure enough we saw a faint glow on some of the hulled pumpkin seeds. I did a little research online and found out about protochlorophyllide. We also saw a similar glow from brown rice that was slightly green on the edge and I wonder if it’s the same molecule!
This is a fun, silly, and educational activity that any kid who likes to make noise will love. Using oobleck (a mix of cornstarch and water) and common household items, you will be able to visualize the sound waves made when you yell!
What we perceive as sound is a wave of pressure transmitted through air. When you yell, your vocal chords vibrate. The energy is transmitted by air molecules smacking into each other, until they they smack into your ear. There, you have cells that can convert the vibrations into electrical signals which are transmitted to and deciphered by your brain. In this activity, you will yell into a device that will transmit your sound waves from air into oobleck so you can see the waves!
SOUND: Kids will probably know what sound is, but not scientifically. Sound is vibrations that travel through a medium (usually air) which are eventually heard by ears. Kids will need to understand that air, even though we can’t see it, is all around us and can be moved similarly to the way balls move, like billiards. Try waving your hand quickly so they can feel the wind it creates. You can tell them air molecules can move to carry the energy from your hand to their skin so they can feel it. Sound also travels through air in a similar way, but sounds are made when something is wiggling the air much fast than your hand can move it. Roll a ball into another ball and talk about how the energy is transferred when the first ball hits, and use this analogy for air transmitting sound.
VIBRATION: To young kids, I like to explain this as fast wiggles. Since you know your kid the best, to define this word, you can draw on experiences you know they have had like the vibration of an old car going down the highway. You can also put their hands on one end of a table and have them feel the vibration of you knocking at the other end of the table. They probably have experienced vibration, but just need to connect the word with the phenomenon.
empty paper towel or toilet paper tubes
thin flexible material like plastic wrap, latex, thin rubber sheet, nitrile (I cut a square from nitrile gloves)
Cut the paper towel roll twice diagonally, as seen in the picture.
Flip the two end pieces up to form a U shape, then tape them together. (Or make into whatever shape you want. You basically want to be able to simultaneously yell into it and see the flexible membrane. The one below is what my daughter made from toilet paper rolls.).
Cut your thin flexible material into a square that will fit over the end of the paper towel tube.
Secure the square to the tube with a rubber band, making sure the membrane is taut like a drum.
To make the oobleck, mix about 2:1 cornstarch to water together (you can make a lot to play with it later, but for this activity, you only need about a teaspoon). You will know it’s the right consistency when you can smack the oobleck and it acts like a solid, but you can also slowly pour it as if it was a viscous liquid. Just add a little more cornstarch or water to get this consistency.
Put about an eighth teaspoon of oobleck onto the drum end.
Make all sorts of sounds into the open end of the paper towel roll and watch the oobleck dance about! Constant, steady low or high sounds work the best, but experiment to see what you can make!
When you scream into your device, kinetic energy is being transferred from your vocal chords, through the air molecules in the tube, to the membrane, to the oobleck. Note how the oobleck is formed into different shapes depending on the pitch of your noise.
You can use this experiment to talk to your kids about eardrums (aka tympanic membrane) by comparing them to the membrane on the device. Just as the screaming-device-membrane transmits sound from air in the tube to the liquid oobleck on top, your eardrum essentially transmits sound from the air in the ear to liquid in the cochlea.
This project can also be done by wrapping a speaker in Saran Wrap, putting some oobleck on it, and playing your kids’ favorite songs. It’s a great visual introduction to rhythm, beat, and volume and will give them a whole new musical experience.
If you ask most kids what bones are made of, they would quickly answer “calcium!” Though it’s not incorrect, years of us telling them to drink their milk for strong bones has hidden an amazing feature of nature, biomineralization by proteins. Calcium is only half the story of bones. Though the semi-crystalline mineral that contains calcium, oxygen, hydrogen, and phosphorus, called hydroxyapatite, provides strength and rigidity, our bones also need to be elastic to help absorb shock. This is where proteins come in. Your bones are made of living tissue that spew out networks of protein that trap and crystallize the calcium in your body. Together they form the strong, resilient biomaterial we know as bones.
You can feel the flexibility of the protein network for yourself by reacting and dissolving the hydroxyapatite from the bones in vinegar. What’s left are entertaining, wiggly bones the kids will love to play with (except my daughter, who was too grossed out and didn’t want to touch them which is why all these pictures are of my hands ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ).