by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA


 As James Thurber once said: “People are funnier than anybody.”  Consider how many of us cannot quite bring ourselves to clean out our medicine cabinets, even when we know that it contains remedies and prescriptions which have long since expired, and even though our common sense tells us that these medicines have lost their potency or, in some cases, as with antibiotics, may actually pose a risk to our health if we were to use them.  So, I have a solution for you which is painless—rigorously clean your medicine cabinet of all expired or no longer used substances, but don’t throw them away.  Instead, lock them up in your lab.  Whenever I ingest a medication, I can’t help wondering what effect it would have on a Paramecium or Stentor or Spirostomum or rotifer, so now, suddenly from the leftovers of my medicine cabinet, I have the possibility for conducting a whole series of interesting experiments.

 Many of us have suffered the agony of toothache and, before submitting ourselves to the medieval ministrations of a dentist, have sought relief with OTC (Over The Counter) preparations.  From the time of childhood to the present, I have nearly exhausted the sadistic repertoire of dentistry, but sometimes, even a dentist will have a lapse, and prescribe a bit of codeine for pain relief.

 The OTC liquids contain benzocaine, alcohol, and all manner of interesting substances which turn out to produce absolutely stunning crystals. Take out the bottle of toothache liquid from your small cache—mine’s a big cache; it has stuff that dates back over 20 years—and put a drop of it on a clean slide and let it evaporate.  Under polarized light, the crystals are spectacular!  The same is true for wart medication.  You have a small, but annoying wart on your finger; you buy a bottle of the magic wart remover and after a few applications—voila—it’s either gone or you give up.  In any case, you still have 3/4 of the bottle left and don’t know what to do with it.  Make slides! and look at them under polarized light.

 An interesting fact about crystallization is that many substances crystallize in different patterns at different temperatures. Copper sulfate is a particularly interesting chemical to investigate in this regard, but since it is moderately poisonous, some caution is required.

 What about the codeine?  Well, codeine is a narcotic derived from morphine which is extracted from the opium poppy, so it might produce some very interesting effects on micro-organisms—it does in humans.  Usually your prescription contains not only codeine, but acetaminophen or aspirin as well, and sometimes caffeine. If you’re testing this on a micro-organisms, you need to record exactly what sorts of compounds are in the medication,. since this can dramatically affect the results.  Obviously, you can’t simply toss a tablet into a culture and expect significant results.  If it’s a tablet, you can grind it to a powder with a mortar and pestle and then add it to a measured quantity of  distilled water—usually 100 ml. or 1,000 ml—as those quantities make it easier to keep track of concentrations.  However, before you put the powder into solution, you need to weigh it so that you have a record of the amount and can re-create the solution if you get interesting results.  It is imperative that one keep such records.

 Some years ago, I was studying the ciliate, Lacrymaria olor, and I got curious about the possible effects of Acridine Orange which is a carcinogen and a mutagen.  I had a dilute solution, but with no label telling me the concentration of the solution and, on a whim, I added several drops to a culture dish containing the Lacrymaria.  Notice how neutrally I stated that.  The truth is that I screwed up. I didn’t write the concentration on the bottle when I made up the solution; I didn’t measure how many drops I added—it could have been 2 or 20.  Of course, none of this would have mattered if I hadn’t gotten some interesting results, but—you guessed it—startling, incredible results—my little experiment produced half a dozen 3-headed mutants!  I have a blurry Polaroid photograph of one specimen which is about as convincing as the photos of UFOs and Nessie.  In the years since, I have tried this experiment again a number of times, but have never managed to get the right combination of conditions and concentrations to duplicate the results.  So, tedious though it may be, keep careful records of even your most casual experiments.

 Forgive me for returning to the painful subject again, but let’s go back to the toothache for a minute.  Your tooth may very well have been infected and, as a consequence, you may have been given a prescription for an antibiotic of which one or two might be left over.  So, what microbiologist could resist the temptation to try out these extraordinary chemicals on protozoa—maybe, Albert Schwietzer, but certainly not me.  Do antibiotics cause Paramecia to self-destruct? Do they produce giant mutant amoebas that can engulf entire cities? Well, that’s for you to discover. A bonus with antibiotics is that many of them also produce magnificent crystals which are even more magnificent with polarized light.

 Many humans, as they age, become obsessive about their health—too late!  Nature has rigged the game.  Some biologists, Richard Dawkins and Lynn Margulis among them, have argued that our significance as organisms is to perpetuate genes.  Humans reach their reproductive peak in their teens and early twenties and thereafter nature doesn’t regard us as worth much further investment and so all kinds of systems in the human organism begin to break down or malfunction. We dream not only of utopian worlds, but of better designed human beings as well; thus all the excitement about the human genome project.  In the meantime, we have aspirin, and ibuprofen, Valium and Viagra, caffeine and Prozac, morphine and propanol.  Since we cannot yet redesign or regenerate our organs, we instead try to modify and enhance their performance when things start to go awry.  So, I can’t help wondering what the busybody of the protozoan world, Paramecium, would be like on caffeine or Valium.  In the early part of the 20th Century, protozoologists routinely investigated the effects of a wide variety of substances on protozoa, primarily ciliates; but such investigations have long since gone out of fashion.  Personally, being an old-school, old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, I still think that such experiments are fascinating and important and this is an area in which amateurs can make significant contributions, if careful records of the experiments are kept.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

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Published in the August 2002 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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