This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Value of Toxic Metals

These's a body of water in Montana known as the Berkeley Pit. This lake is a remnant of an old open-pit copper mine that closed down in 1982 when it was no longer profitable to operate. It has since filled with water, about 37 billion gallons worth, and that's when the real chemistry began. Pyrites and other sulfides dissolved in the water and oxidized, forming sulfuric acid, and lowering the pH of the water to less than 3. This led to the steady leeching of metals out of the surrounding rocks, and after 25 years the Berkeley "Lake" has high levels of arsenic, lead, zinc, manganese, iron, copper, aluminum, and cadmium. It's a place only an inorganic chemist could love. It's also a part of one of the largest Superfund sites in the U.S. Nothing lives there - no fish, no birds, no plants - it's a dead zone, or at least that's what everybody thought. In 1995, someone spotted some green slime on the surface of the lake, which turned out to be a form of green algae.

Organisms which manage to survive extremely harsh conditions are called extremophiles. They have been found under the ice in the Arctic, around deep sea vents, and in the boiling water of hot springs. Their ability to survive these conditions makes them of interest to biologists. In particular, many extremophiles demonstrate a superior ability to repair their DNA, which makes them of great interest to cancer researchers. Andrea and Don Stierle have been studying the organisms which have been living in the pit, looking for new compounds which may have anti-cancer activity. And they have been successful, having discovered berkeleydione, berkeleytrione, and berkeley acid, all of which have shown anti-cancer activity. The structures for berkeleydione and berkeleytrione are shown below.

Thought #1:
Makes you look at toxic metals in the environment a little differently now, doesn't it? Perhaps we should be harvesting more of the toxic waste dumps we have created over the years. It could be one of this country's biggest resources.

Thought #2:
Microorganisms are better at making new and novel organic compounds than grad students. Soon, the only reason why faculty members will continue to hire grad students instead of microorganisms will be because grad students are usually paid less than what microorganisms would accept.

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