Biology Explainer: The big 4 building blocks of life–carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and nucleic acids

The short version
  • The four basic categories of molecules for building life are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
  • Carbohydrates serve many purposes, from energy to structure to chemical communication, as monomers or polymers.
  • Lipids, which are hydrophobic, also have different purposes, including energy storage, structure, and signaling.
  • Proteins, made of amino acids in up to four structural levels, are involved in just about every process of life.                                                                                                      
  • The nucleic acids DNA and RNA consist of four nucleotide building blocks, and each has different purposes.
The longer version
Life is so diverse and unwieldy, it may surprise you to learn that we can break it down into four basic categories of molecules. Possibly even more implausible is the fact that two of these categories of large molecules themselves break down into a surprisingly small number of building blocks. The proteins that make up all of the living things on this planet and ensure their appropriate structure and smooth function consist of only 20 different kinds of building blocks. Nucleic acids, specifically DNA, are even more basic: only four different kinds of molecules provide the materials to build the countless different genetic codes that translate into all the different walking, swimming, crawling, oozing, and/or photosynthesizing organisms that populate the third rock from the Sun.

                                                  

Big Molecules with Small Building Blocks

The functional groups, assembled into building blocks on backbones of carbon atoms, can be bonded together to yield large molecules that we classify into four basic categories. These molecules, in many different permutations, are the basis for the diversity that we see among living things. They can consist of thousands of atoms, but only a handful of different kinds of atoms form them. It’s like building apartment buildings using a small selection of different materials: bricks, mortar, iron, glass, and wood. Arranged in different ways, these few materials can yield a huge variety of structures.

We encountered functional groups and the SPHONC in Chapter 3. These components form the four categories of molecules of life. These Big Four biological molecules are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. They can have many roles, from giving an organism structure to being involved in one of the millions of processes of living. Let’s meet each category individually and discover the basic roles of each in the structure and function of life.
Carbohydrates

You have met carbohydrates before, whether you know it or not. We refer to them casually as “sugars,” molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. A sugar molecule has a carbon backbone, usually five or six carbons in the ones we’ll discuss here, but it can be as few as three. Sugar molecules can link together in pairs or in chains or branching “trees,” either for structure or energy storage.

When you look on a nutrition label, you’ll see reference to “sugars.” That term includes carbohydrates that provide energy, which we get from breaking the chemical bonds in a sugar called glucose. The “sugars” on a nutrition label also include those that give structure to a plant, which we call fiber. Both are important nutrients for people.

Sugars serve many purposes. They give crunch to the cell walls of a plant or the exoskeleton of a beetle and chemical energy to the marathon runner. When attached to other molecules, like proteins or fats, they aid in communication between cells. But before we get any further into their uses, let’s talk structure.

The sugars we encounter most in basic biology have their five or six carbons linked together in a ring. There’s no need to dive deep into organic chemistry, but there are a couple of essential things to know to interpret the standard representations of these molecules.

Check out the sugars depicted in the figure. The top-left molecule, glucose, has six carbons, which have been numbered. The sugar to its right is the same glucose, with all but one “C” removed. The other five carbons are still there but are inferred using the conventions of organic chemistry: Anywhere there is a corner, there’s a carbon unless otherwise indicated. It might be a good exercise for you to add in a “C” over each corner so that you gain a good understanding of this convention. You should end up adding in five carbon symbols; the sixth is already given because that is conventionally included when it occurs outside of the ring.

On the left is a glucose with all of its carbons indicated. They’re also numbered, which is important to understand now for information that comes later. On the right is the same molecule, glucose, without the carbons indicated (except for the sixth one). Wherever there is a corner, there is a carbon, unless otherwise indicated (as with the oxygen). On the bottom left is ribose, the sugar found in RNA. The sugar on the bottom right is deoxyribose. Note that at carbon 2 (*), the ribose and deoxyribose differ by a single oxygen.

The lower left sugar in the figure is a ribose. In this depiction, the carbons, except the one outside of the ring, have not been drawn in, and they are not numbered. This is the standard way sugars are presented in texts. Can you tell how many carbons there are in this sugar? Count the corners and don’t forget the one that’s already indicated!

If you said “five,” you are right. Ribose is a pentose (pent = five) and happens to be the sugar present in ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Think to yourself what the sugar might be in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. If you thought, deoxyribose, you’d be right.

The fourth sugar given in the figure is a deoxyribose. In organic chemistry, it’s not enough to know that corners indicate carbons. Each carbon also has a specific number, which becomes important in discussions of nucleic acids. Luckily, we get to keep our carbon counting pretty simple in basic biology. To count carbons, you start with the carbon to the right of the non-carbon corner of the molecule. The deoxyribose or ribose always looks to me like a little cupcake with a cherry on top. The “cherry” is an oxygen. To the right of that oxygen, we start counting carbons, so that corner to the right of the “cherry” is the first carbon. Now, keep counting. Here’s a little test: What is hanging down from carbon 2 of the deoxyribose?

If you said a hydrogen (H), you are right! Now, compare the deoxyribose to the ribose. Do you see the difference in what hangs off of the carbon 2 of each sugar? You’ll see that the carbon 2 of ribose has an –OH, rather than an H. The reason the deoxyribose is called that is because the O on the second carbon of the ribose has been removed, leaving a “deoxyed” ribose. This tiny distinction between the sugars used in DNA and RNA is significant enough in biology that we use it to distinguish the two nucleic acids.

In fact, these subtle differences in sugars mean big differences for many biological molecules. Below, you’ll find a couple of ways that apparently small changes in a sugar molecule can mean big changes in what it does. These little changes make the difference between a delicious sugar cookie and the crunchy exoskeleton of a dung beetle.

Sugar and Fuel

A marathon runner keeps fuel on hand in the form of “carbs,” or sugars. These fuels provide the marathoner’s straining body with the energy it needs to keep the muscles pumping. When we take in sugar like this, it often comes in the form of glucose molecules attached together in a polymer called starch. We are especially equipped to start breaking off individual glucose molecules the minute we start chewing on a starch.

Double X Extra: A monomer is a building block (mono = one) and a polymer is a chain of monomers. With a few dozen monomers or building blocks, we get millions of different polymers. That may sound nutty until you think of the infinity of values that can be built using only the numbers 0 through 9 as building blocks or the intricate programming that is done using only a binary code of zeros and ones in different combinations.

Our bodies then can rapidly take the single molecules, or monomers, into cells and crack open the chemical bonds to transform the energy for use. The bonds of a sugar are packed with chemical energy that we capture to build a different kind of energy-containing molecule that our muscles access easily. Most species rely on this process of capturing energy from sugars and transforming it for specific purposes.

Polysaccharides: Fuel and Form

Plants use the Sun’s energy to make their own glucose, and starch is actually a plant’s way of storing up that sugar. Potatoes, for example, are quite good at packing away tons of glucose molecules and are known to dieticians as a “starchy” vegetable. The glucose molecules in starch are packed fairly closely together. A string of sugar molecules bonded together through dehydration synthesis, as they are in starch, is a polymer called a polysaccharide (poly = many; saccharide = sugar). When the monomers of the polysaccharide are released, as when our bodies break them up, the reaction that releases them is called hydrolysis.

Double X Extra: The specific reaction that hooks one monomer to another in a covalent bond is called dehydration synthesis because in making the bond–synthesizing the larger molecule–a molecule of water is removed (dehydration). The reverse is hydrolysis (hydro = water; lysis = breaking), which breaks the covalent bond by the addition of a molecule of water.

Although plants make their own glucose and animals acquire it by eating the plants, animals can also package away the glucose they eat for later use. Animals, including humans, store glucose in a polysaccharide called glycogen, which is more branched than starch. In us, we build this energy reserve primarily in the liver and access it when our glucose levels drop.

Whether starch or glycogen, the glucose molecules that are stored are bonded together so that all of the molecules are oriented the same way. If you view the sixth carbon of the glucose to be a “carbon flag,” you’ll see in the figure that all of the glucose molecules in starch are oriented with their carbon flags on the upper left.

The orientation of monomers of glucose in polysaccharides can make a big difference in the use of the polymer. The glucoses in the molecule on the top are all oriented “up” and form starch. The glucoses in the molecule on the bottom alternate orientation to form cellulose, which is quite different in its function from starch.

Storing up sugars for fuel and using them as fuel isn’t the end of the uses of sugar. In fact, sugars serve as structural molecules in a huge variety of organisms, including fungi, bacteria, plants, and insects.

The primary structural role of a sugar is as a component of the cell wall, giving the organism support against gravity. In plants, the familiar old glucose molecule serves as one building block of the plant cell wall, but with a catch: The molecules are oriented in an alternating up-down fashion. The resulting structural sugar is called cellulose.

That simple difference in orientation means the difference between a polysaccharide as fuel for us and a polysaccharide as structure. Insects take it step further with the polysaccharide that makes up their exoskeleton, or outer shell. Once again, the building block is glucose, arranged as it is in cellulose, in an alternating conformation. But in insects, each glucose has a little extra added on, a chemical group called an N-acetyl group. This addition of a single functional group alters the use of cellulose and turns it into a structural molecule that gives bugs that special crunchy sound when you accidentally…ahem…step on them.

These variations on the simple theme of a basic carbon-ring-as-building-block occur again and again in biological systems. In addition to serving roles in structure and as fuel, sugars also play a role in function. The attachment of subtly different sugar molecules to a protein or a lipid is one way cells communicate chemically with one another in refined, regulated interactions. It’s as though the cells talk with each other using a specialized, sugar-based vocabulary. Typically, cells display these sugary messages to the outside world, making them available to other cells that can recognize the molecular language.

Lipids: The Fatty Trifecta

Starch makes for good, accessible fuel, something that we immediately attack chemically and break up for quick energy. But fats are energy that we are supposed to bank away for a good long time and break out in times of deprivation. Like sugars, fats serve several purposes, including as a dense source of energy and as a universal structural component of cell membranes everywhere.

Fats: the Good, the Bad, the Neutral

Turn again to a nutrition label, and you’ll see a few references to fats, also known as lipids. (Fats are slightly less confusing that sugars in that they have only two names.) The label may break down fats into categories, including trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and cholesterol. You may have learned that trans fats are “bad” and that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, but what does it all mean?

Let’s start with what we mean when we say saturated fat. The question is, saturated with what? There is a specific kind of dietary fat call the triglyceride. As its name implies, it has a structural motif in which something is repeated three times. That something is a chain of carbons and hydrogens, hanging off in triplicate from a head made of glycerol, as the figure shows.  Those three carbon-hydrogen chains, or fatty acids, are the “tri” in a triglyceride. Chains like this can be many carbons long.

Double X Extra: We call a fatty acid a fatty acid because it’s got a carboxylic acid attached to a fatty tail. A triglyceride consists of three of these fatty acids attached to a molecule called glycerol. Our dietary fat primarily consists of these triglycerides.

Triglycerides come in several forms. You may recall that carbon can form several different kinds of bonds, including single bonds, as with hydrogen, and double bonds, as with itself. A chain of carbon and hydrogens can have every single available carbon bond taken by a hydrogen in single covalent bond. This scenario of hydrogen saturation yields a saturated fat. The fat is saturated to its fullest with every covalent bond taken by hydrogens single bonded to the carbons.

Saturated fats have predictable characteristics. They lie flat easily and stick to each other, meaning that at room temperature, they form a dense solid. You will realize this if you find a little bit of fat on you to pinch. Does it feel pretty solid? That’s because animal fat is saturated fat. The fat on a steak is also solid at room temperature, and in fact, it takes a pretty high heat to loosen it up enough to become liquid. Animals are not the only organisms that produce saturated fat–avocados and coconuts also are known for their saturated fat content.

The top graphic above depicts a triglyceride with the glycerol, acid, and three hydrocarbon tails. The tails of this saturated fat, with every possible hydrogen space occupied, lie comparatively flat on one another, and this kind of fat is solid at room temperature. The fat on the bottom, however, is unsaturated, with bends or kinks wherever two carbons have double bonded, booting a couple of hydrogens and making this fat unsaturated, or lacking some hydrogens. Because of the space between the bumps, this fat is probably not solid at room temperature, but liquid.

You can probably now guess what an unsaturated fat is–one that has one or more hydrogens missing. Instead of single bonding with hydrogens at every available space, two or more carbons in an unsaturated fat chain will form a double bond with carbon, leaving no space for a hydrogen. Because some carbons in the chain share two pairs of electrons, they physically draw closer to one another than they do in a single bond. This tighter bonding result in a “kink” in the fatty acid chain.

In a fat with these kinks, the three fatty acids don’t lie as densely packed with each other as they do in a saturated fat. The kinks leave spaces between them. Thus, unsaturated fats are less dense than saturated fats and often will be liquid at room temperature. A good example of a liquid unsaturated fat at room temperature is canola oil.

A few decades ago, food scientists discovered that unsaturated fats could be resaturated or hydrogenated to behave more like saturated fats and have a longer shelf life. The process of hydrogenation–adding in hydrogens–yields trans fat. This kind of processed fat is now frowned upon and is being removed from many foods because of its associations with adverse health effects. If you check a food label and it lists among the ingredients “partially hydrogenated” oils, that can mean that the food contains trans fat.

Double X Extra: A triglyceride can have up to three different fatty acids attached to it. Canola oil, for example, consists primarily of oleic acid, linoleic acid, and linolenic acid, all of which are unsaturated fatty acids with 18 carbons in their chains.

Why do we take in fat anyway? Fat is a necessary nutrient for everything from our nervous systems to our circulatory health. It also, under appropriate conditions, is an excellent way to store up densely packaged energy for the times when stores are running low. We really can’t live very well without it.

Phospholipids: An Abundant Fat

You may have heard that oil and water don’t mix, and indeed, it is something you can observe for yourself. Drop a pat of butter–pure saturated fat–into a bowl of water and watch it just sit there. Even if you try mixing it with a spoon, it will just sit there. Now, drop a spoon of salt into the water and stir it a bit. The salt seems to vanish. You’ve just illustrated the difference between a water-fearing (hydrophobic) and a water-loving (hydrophilic) substance.

Generally speaking, compounds that have an unequal sharing of electrons (like ions or anything with a covalent bond between oxygen and hydrogen or nitrogen and hydrogen) will be hydrophilic. The reason is that a charge or an unequal electron sharing gives the molecule polarity that allows it to interact with water through hydrogen bonds. A fat, however, consists largely of hydrogen and carbon in those long chains. Carbon and hydrogen have roughly equivalent electronegativities, and their electron-sharing relationship is relatively nonpolar. Fat, lacking in polarity, doesn’t interact with water. As the butter demonstrated, it just sits there.

There is one exception to that little maxim about fat and water, and that exception is the phospholipid. This lipid has a special structure that makes it just right for the job it does: forming the membranes of cells. A phospholipid consists of a polar phosphate head–P and O don’t share equally–and a couple of nonpolar hydrocarbon tails, as the figure shows. If you look at the figure, you’ll see that one of the two tails has a little kick in it, thanks to a double bond between the two carbons there.

Phospholipids form a double layer and are the major structural components of cell membranes. Their bend, or kick, in one of the hydrocarbon tails helps ensure fluidity of the cell membrane. The molecules are bipolar, with hydrophilic heads for interacting with the internal and external watery environments of the cell and hydrophobic tails that help cell membranes behave as general security guards.

The kick and the bipolar (hydrophobic and hydrophilic) nature of the phospholipid make it the perfect molecule for building a cell membrane. A cell needs a watery outside to survive. It also needs a watery inside to survive. Thus, it must face the inside and outside worlds with something that interacts well with water. But it also must protect itself against unwanted intruders, providing a barrier that keeps unwanted things out and keeps necessary molecules in.

Phospholipids achieve it all. They assemble into a double layer around a cell but orient to allow interaction with the watery external and internal environments. On the layer facing the inside of the cell, the phospholipids orient their polar, hydrophilic heads to the watery inner environment and their tails away from it. On the layer to the outside of the cell, they do the same.
As the figure shows, the result is a double layer of phospholipids with each layer facing a polar, hydrophilic head to the watery environments. The tails of each layer face one another. They form a hydrophobic, fatty moat around a cell that serves as a general gatekeeper, much in the way that your skin does for you. Charged particles cannot simply slip across this fatty moat because they can’t interact with it. And to keep the fat fluid, one tail of each phospholipid has that little kick, giving the cell membrane a fluid, liquidy flow and keeping it from being solid and unforgiving at temperatures in which cells thrive.

Steroids: Here to Pump You Up?

Our final molecule in the lipid fatty trifecta is cholesterol. As you may have heard, there are a few different kinds of cholesterol, some of which we consider to be “good” and some of which is “bad.” The good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, in part helps us out because it removes the bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL, from our blood. The presence of LDL is associated with inflammation of the lining of the blood vessels, which can lead to a variety of health problems.

But cholesterol has some other reasons for existing. One of its roles is in the maintenance of cell membrane fluidity. Cholesterol is inserted throughout the lipid bilayer and serves as a block to the fatty tails that might otherwise stick together and become a bit too solid.

Cholesterol’s other starring role as a lipid is as the starting molecule for a class of hormones we called steroids or steroid hormones. With a few snips here and additions there, cholesterol can be changed into the steroid hormones progesterone, testosterone, or estrogen. These molecules look quite similar, but they play very different roles in organisms. Testosterone, for example, generally masculinizes vertebrates (animals with backbones), while progesterone and estrogen play a role in regulating the ovulatory cycle.

Double X Extra: A hormone is a blood-borne signaling molecule. It can be lipid based, like testosterone, or short protein, like insulin.

Proteins

As you progress through learning biology, one thing will become more and more clear: Most cells function primarily as protein factories. It may surprise you to learn that proteins, which we often talk about in terms of food intake, are the fundamental molecule of many of life’s processes. Enzymes, for example, form a single broad category of proteins, but there are millions of them, each one governing a small step in the molecular pathways that are required for living.

Levels of Structure

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. A few amino acids strung together is called a peptide, while many many peptides linked together form a polypeptide. When many amino acids strung together interact with each other to form a properly folded molecule, we call that molecule a protein.

For a string of amino acids to ultimately fold up into an active protein, they must first be assembled in the correct order. The code for their assembly lies in the DNA, but once that code has been read and the amino acid chain built, we call that simple, unfolded chain the primary structure of the protein.

This chain can consist of hundreds of amino acids that interact all along the sequence. Some amino acids are hydrophobic and some are hydrophilic. In this context, like interacts best with like, so the hydrophobic amino acids will interact with one another, and the hydrophilic amino acids will interact together. As these contacts occur along the string of molecules, different conformations will arise in different parts of the chain. We call these different conformations along the amino acid chain the protein’s secondary structure.

Once those interactions have occurred, the protein can fold into its final, or tertiary structure and be ready to serve as an active participant in cellular processes. To achieve the tertiary structure, the amino acid chain’s secondary interactions must usually be ongoing, and the pH, temperature, and salt balance must be just right to facilitate the folding. This tertiary folding takes place through interactions of the secondary structures along the different parts of the amino acid chain.

The final product is a properly folded protein. If we could see it with the naked eye, it might look a lot like a wadded up string of pearls, but that “wadded up” look is misleading. Protein folding is a carefully regulated process that is determined at its core by the amino acids in the chain: their hydrophobicity and hydrophilicity and how they interact together.

In many instances, however, a complete protein consists of more than one amino acid chain, and the complete protein has two or more interacting strings of amino acids. A good example is hemoglobin in red blood cells. Its job is to grab oxygen and deliver it to the body’s tissues. A complete hemoglobin protein consists of four separate amino acid chains all properly folded into their tertiary structures and interacting as a single unit. In cases like this involving two or more interacting amino acid chains, we say that the final protein has a quaternary structure. Some proteins can consist of as many as a dozen interacting chains, behaving as a single protein unit.

A Plethora of Purposes

What does a protein do? Let us count the ways. Really, that’s almost impossible because proteins do just about everything. Some of them tag things. Some of them destroy things. Some of them protect. Some mark cells as “self.” Some serve as structural materials, while others are highways or motors. They aid in communication, they operate as signaling molecules, they transfer molecules and cut them up, they interact with each other in complex, interrelated pathways to build things up and break things down. They regulate genes and package DNA, and they regulate and package each other.

As described above, proteins are the final folded arrangement of a string of amino acids. One way we obtain these building blocks for the millions of proteins our bodies make is through our diet. You may hear about foods that are high in protein or people eating high-protein diets to build muscle. When we take in those proteins, we can break them apart and use the amino acids that make them up to build proteins of our own.

Nucleic Acids

How does a cell know which proteins to make? It has a code for building them, one that is especially guarded in a cellular vault in our cells called the nucleus. This code is deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The cell makes a copy of this code and send it out to specialized structures that read it and build proteins based on what they read. As with any code, a typo–a mutation–can result in a message that doesn’t make as much sense. When the code gets changed, sometimes, the protein that the cell builds using that code will be changed, too.

Biohazard!The names associated with nucleic acids can be confusing because they all start with nucle-. It may seem obvious or easy now, but a brain freeze on a test could mix you up. You need to fix in your mind that the shorter term (10 letters, four syllables), nucleotide, refers to the smaller molecule, the three-part building block. The longer term (12 characters, including the space, and five syllables), nucleic acid, which is inherent in the names DNA and RNA, designates the big, long molecule.

DNA vs. RNA: A Matter of Structure

DNA and its nucleic acid cousin, ribonucleic acid, or RNA, are both made of the same kinds of building blocks. These building blocks are called nucleotides. Each nucleotide consists of three parts: a sugar (ribose for RNA and deoxyribose for DNA), a phosphate, and a nitrogenous base. In DNA, every nucleotide has identical sugars and phosphates, and in RNA, the sugar and phosphate are also the same for every nucleotide.

So what’s different? The nitrogenous bases. DNA has a set of four to use as its coding alphabet. These are the purines, adenine and guanine, and the pyrimidines, thymine and cytosine. The nucleotides are abbreviated by their initial letters as A, G, T, and C. From variations in the arrangement and number of these four molecules, all of the diversity of life arises. Just four different types of the nucleotide building blocks, and we have you, bacteria, wombats, and blue whales.

RNA is also basic at its core, consisting of only four different nucleotides. In fact, it uses three of the same nitrogenous bases as DNA–A, G, and C–but it substitutes a base called uracil (U) where DNA uses thymine. Uracil is a pyrimidine.

DNA vs. RNA: Function Wars

An interesting thing about the nitrogenous bases of the nucleotides is that they pair with each other, using hydrogen bonds, in a predictable way. An adenine will almost always bond with a thymine in DNA or a uracil in RNA, and cytosine and guanine will almost always bond with each other. This pairing capacity allows the cell to use a sequence of DNA and build either a new DNA sequence, using the old one as a template, or build an RNA sequence to make a copy of the DNA.

These two different uses of A-T/U and C-G base pairing serve two different purposes. DNA is copied into DNA usually when a cell is preparing to divide and needs two complete sets of DNA for the new cells. DNA is copied into RNA when the cell needs to send the code out of the vault so proteins can be built. The DNA stays safely where it belongs.

RNA is really a nucleic acid jack-of-all-trades. It not only serves as the copy of the DNA but also is the main component of the two types of cellular workers that read that copy and build proteins from it. At one point in this process, the three types of RNA come together in protein assembly to make sure the job is done right.


 By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor 
This material originally appeared in similar form in Emily Willingham’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology

What does ‘safe’ mean when we’re talking about chemicals?

It’s not easy being green. First, you have decide which green to be. (Source)

[We at Double X Science had been considering a "toxins" post but then found the following post by Jennifer Mo, a happily childfree vegetarian who lives in California with a cat named Brie but variously nicknamed Walnut "for her brain capacity" or Toxokitty for her history of toxoplasmosis--which, as it turns out, turns up in Jennifer's guest post, below. This post first appeared at Jennifer's blog, It's Not Easy to Be Green, where she writes about environmental issues as a "rationalist and a pragmatist." You can also follow Jennifer on Twitter @noteasy2begreen. We appreciated the pragmatics of this particular post quite a bit and thank Jennifer for allowing us to host it at Double X Science. We are particularly taken with the fact that she asks if we'd ever wanted to call our own brain a troglodyte.]

It’s a common demand from the public to scientists: prove to us something is safe before unleashing your monster on the world. And on one hand, it’s a totally fair, reasonable request to not be treated as lab rats. I get that. I hate the idea of having big chemical corporations profiting off their creations that create long term problems for ordinary people and the environment. On the other, whether you’re talking about GMOs or synthetic chemicals, it’s a problematic request for a couple of key reasons:
  • It assumes a binary between safe and unsafe without regard to exposure level or other circumstances. Just about everything can be harmful under the right (or perhaps I should say wrong?) conditions. Take water, for example.Tons Continue reading

From alchemist to chemist: What kind of chemistry is that?


Figure 1: The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus

What does the word chemistry  mean to you? For many, it was a class in high school or college to get through. In these introductory courses, called general chemistry, one gets a mix of all the flavors of chemistry – but the flavors are very different. To those who hear the calling of chemistry, it isn’t just any chemistry that will do. Some courses are more interesting to them than others. 

Many instructors start their general chemistry course with a history, introducing alchemy. Alchemy is considered to be the process by which to turn [name item of your choice] into gold. Alchemists were chemists by accident in that they performed many chemical reactions in their quests, discovering a number of elements in the process - embodied by Hennig Brandt’s discovery of phosphorus from the refinement of urine.
Alchemy relates to all the fields of chemistry. In perhaps the most famous of alchemy pictures, that by Joseph Wright of Derby entitled “The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus,” the alchemist is kneeling by a very large round bottom flask. For many in modern chemistry, the round bottom flask signifies hours in the organic chemistrylaboratory mixing chemicals together to create something new.


Organic chemistry is the “branch of chemistry that deals with the structure, properties, and reactions of compounds that contain carbon” according to the American Chemical Association (ACS). Organic chemistry is the largest of chemistry fields in terms of number of people working in it. Organic chemists strive to make new compounds, usually to improve upon an existing one for a purpose and the field is often thought of in terms of synthesis applications.


The actual process of converting urine to phosphorus generally falls along the lines of inorganic chemical reactions. The form of phosphorus in urine is in the chemical sodium phosphate (Na3PO43-). Heating phosphates along with the organic products also in urine will form carbon monoxide (CO) and elemental phosphorus (P). The sodium phosphate, carbon monoxide, and elemental phosphate are all inorganic chemicals, falling under the field of inorganic chemistry.


Inorganic chemistry is “concerned with the properties and reactivity of all chemical elements,” according to UC-Davis chemwiki. While organic chemistry requires the presence of carbon in a specific type of bond, inorganic chemistry involves all the elements present in the periodic table. Inorganic chemistry delves into theories surrounding the bonding of metals to molecules and the shapes of molecules themselves.


Figure 2: Components of Urine
While the process of collecting phosphorus from urine requires organic and inorganic chemical reactions, the process of making the products in urine is biochemistry. Note in figure 2 that the primary product in urine is urea.


For students of biochemistry, images of the urea cycle (aka the Krebs cycle) are well known. According to the ACS, biochemistry is “the study of the structure, composition, and chemical reactions of substances in living systems.” Besides the chemical cycles to produce and use up necessary chemicals in biology, biochemistry encompasses protein structure and function (including enzymes), nucleic acids such as DNA, and biosynthesis.


As the alchemist turned urine to phosphorus, he added heat. The addition of heat to a reaction involves thermodynamics, a subsection of physical chemistry. If heat hadn’t been added, the reaction products would have been kinetic, which is another subsection of physical chemistry.


In a suite of physical chemistry courses, a student would also take quantum mechanics, rounding out the aim of physical chemists, which is to “develop a fundamental understanding at the molecular and atomic level of how materials behave and how chemical reactions occur,” according to the ACS. Physical chemists work by applying physics and math to the problems that chemists, biologists, and engineers study.


The alchemists who took exact measurements of their reactants and products, using quantitative methods, employed analytical chemistry. Presumably, the alchemists did this because every ounce of gold was precious, and they wanted to know how much substance they started with to produce the coveted metal.


Analytical chemistry focuses on obtaining and processing information about the composition and structure of matter. There are so-called wet lab ways to determine these quantities that often been employed. However, most analytical labs consist of the precision instrumentation that you may have seen on forensic crime shows, such as a mass spec, short for mass spectrometer, a frequent player on CSI.


While the alchemists were only trying to produce a substance to enrich pockets, they ultimately led to a rich science with several subfields, each with a trail leading from the practice of alchemy.

Adrienne M Roehrich, Double X Science Chemistry Editor
References:

(1734-1797), Joseph Wright of Derby. “English: The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus or the Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers Stone.” Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, U.K., 1771.

Lawton, Graham. “Pee-Cycling.” New Scientist, 20 December 2006 2006.

Weeks, Mary Elvira. “The Discovery of the Elements. Xxi. Supplementary Note on the Discovery of Phosphorus.” Journal of Chemical Education 10, no. 5 (1933/05/01 1933): 302.

How chili powder can kill



Source. Credit.

How can chili powder kill a child? Dr. Rubidium explains.
by Dr. Rubidium, Ph.D., DXS contributor

On the evening of Sunday, January 6th, 2-year-old Joileen G. was pronounced dead at a San Bernardino hospital. A few hours into Monday, Joileen’s caregiver for that Sunday — Amanda Sorensen — was arrested. On Wednesday, Ms. Sorensen, who is also the girlfriend of Joileen’s father, was charged with “…malice aforethought murder…” and “…assault… by means of force that to a reasonable person would be likely to produce bodily injury, resulting in the child’s death.” The alleged “means of force” wasn’t a belt or a fist, but chili powder.

Though it will likely take weeks before the exact cause and manner of death are known from an autopsy and toxicology tests, various media outlets are reporting that Joileen died of “chili powder poisoning.”

Millions to billions of people enjoy chili peppers world-wide each day, from eating handfuls of whole chili peppers to a few shakes of hot sauce on their eggs. Chili peppers and their products aren’t considered a poison, but that’s because most of us have far too narrow a view of poisons. The field of poisons is actually very broad, as are its definitions. 

For example, for toxicologists, a poison is any substance that is harmful when administered to a living organism. But quantity (dose) and species (you versus, say, a turtle) and route (mouth? skin?) and what it’s combined with count, too. Other factors influencing whether or not something will poison you include age, sex, health, and genetics

In other words, almost anything can be a poison at the right (or wrong Continue reading

Explosions, Just a Bit More Than Fireworks

Image by Nux. (Source)

By Adrienne M Roehrich, Chemistry Editor


It’s that time of the year in the U.S. – when we blow up pretty bombs in celebration of the approval of the Declaration of Independence, declaring the independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. Around this time of year, there is no dearth of articles about the chemistry of fireworks, but the chemistry editor here could not let her secret love of this topic pass by.


What is an explosive? An explosive is a combination of materials that when reacted produce an abundance of light, sound, heat, and pressure. A firework encompasses all 4 of those: we are familiar with the light – the whole reason we view fireworks, we are familiar with the sound – the boom that follows especially large displays, we are familiar with the pressure if we are close enough – that’s the force that pushes into you and the “shock wave” pictured in movies after large explosions; and we are familiar with the heat – ever held a sparkler?


There are three main types of explosives: chemical, nuclear, and mechanical. The bulk of this post will focus on chemical explosives with a short bit about nuclear and mechanical.


If we start at the beginning – well, we’ll skip to the “accepted” first explosive – black powder. Black powder, also called gun powder and the precursor to fireworks, is coined a chemical explosive. Chemical explosions generally fall into a specific classification of chemical reactions called oxidation.


The earliest definition of oxidation was the addition of the element oxygen to a compound, also called combustion. Due to limits of this definition, it was later changed to be the loss of electrons from an element (within a compound.) The original definition can easily be shown in terms of explosives. The simple mixing of hydrogen and oxygen with the addition of just a bit of heat, will form water in an explosive display:


2H2 + O2 –> 2H2O



The little flame used to catalyze the reaction in the video is actually much more energy than is necessary to cause this reaction to occur, but it’s difficult to get an even littler source of heat and safely demonstrate this reaction. You might also note a lot more energy comes out of that reaction once started in terms of light and heat and sound. I’ve been the one lighting that reaction in a demo without both ears plugged and I couldn’t hear out of one ear for the rest of the lecture.


If we focus on the loss of electrons version of oxidation, we get specific colors. This is what the flame video by The Fabulab focused on in their entry for Alan Alda’s Flame Challenge. I direct your attention to 1:08 and the discussion of electrons.


Metals are the simplest example (and most used) example of oxidation as the loss of electrons and the color change associated. Because some electrons are lost, we now have a different set of electrons changing energy and a different color appears.



From here, it is easy to see how fireworks fall into this category of explosives. Fireworks are always being further refined to produce a specific set of light and sound. For a bit more information, this video gets fairly specific.

The vast majority of explosives in use today are considered chemical explosives. This covers a range of materials, including the aforementioned black powder and fireworks, nitroglycerin, dynamite, plastic explosives (C4 for Mythbusters and sci-fi television show fans), and the ones with water now restricting the amount of water one is allowed to bring onto an airplane in the U.S.


Another type of explosive is a nuclear explosive. The energy in these explosives come from a nuclear reaction. Wikipedia differentiates types of nuclear explosions into stellar and man-made. Another way to differentiate nuclear reactions is by fission and fusion. The explosions at the heart of stars fall under nuclear fusion and are called stellar nucleosynthesis.


Nuclear fusion is the process of forcing 2 atoms into 1 new, larger atom.  The CNO cycle, diagrammed here, is one of the nuclear fusion reactions occurring in stellar nucleosynthesis.


Source

Nuclear fission is the process involved in nuclear weapons. 


Nuclear fission is the process of dividing an atom into 2 or more smaller atoms. In both nuclear fusion and nuclear fission processes, specific types of radiation are emitted because the new atoms produced do not have the same energy as the starting material. The radiation emitted in these reactions is not just from a change of electrons but from a change from the nucleus of the atom. This emission of radiation is part of the light and heat from the sun and the light and heat of a nuclear bomb.


The third and last type of explosive I will cover is a mechanical explosive. These explosions occur as a purely physical process, but can then incite a chemical explosion. Mechanical explosions occur due to a sudden release of a build up of pressure. A specific kind of these explosions are under conditions where a liquid is pressurized in a vessel and a rupture brings it above its boiling point, called a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, BLEVE. Steam powered trains were sometimes damaged by these type of explosions. An explosion of a water heater falls into this category. Mechanical explosions are the rarest and perhaps least covered types of explosives.


Water heater explosion by the Mythbusters. 



These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily either reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team.

Women, harassment, and construction sites


Courtesy of UMass.

[Ed. note: This post first appeared at Patricia Valoy's blog, Womanisms. It is reprinted here with permission.]

by Patricia Valoy

It is no mystery that there are few women who work in the construction industry. For years the sector has been overwhelmingly male dominated, with women making only 9.6% of the construction industry workforce. The industry, while remaining male dominated, has been increasingly facing a crisis due to the lack of available qualified workers. As the demand for labor surpasses the supply, construction companies expand their recruitment efforts, including a formerly untapped labor source, women. Construction jobs allow for upward mobility directly linked to years of experience and ability to do the work well, making it a desirable career choice for many. However, while sex discrimination is illegal, many construction sites have anti-women attitudes, making construction jobs less desirable and/or torturous for women.


The United States Department of Labor Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health reported in 1999 that 88% of women construction workers surveyed had experienced sexual harassment at work. I searched high and low for more current data, but no extensive study has been done since then. Most recent information I found would just claim that things are “getting better” for women in construction, and while I don’t deny that there are more women in construction fields, I am not convinced that sexual harassment and bullying is a thing of the past. Progress is great, but a hostile environment affects a person’s ability to do their job correctly. I know first hand because it happened to me.


I studied Civil Engineering, and most Engineering students know that in order to improve one’s chances of getting hired when you graduate you should have at least one internship or apprenticeship during your undergraduate studies. Internships give you some real life experiences that are just impossible to get from a classroom. During my sophomore year of Engineering school I applied and was hired for an internship as a Construction Manager Assistant for a major construction management company in New York City. My work consisted of being in a construction site and maintaining the project schedule by monitoring project progress, coordinating activities among the different trades, and resolving problems. The finished product was to be a high-rise residential building overlooking Central Park. To this day I am grateful for all that I learned while in a construction site. That experience has helped me along in my professional career in more ways than I can imagine, from dealing with a team, to learning how to schedule major projects. However, being one female out of a total of about 10 women in a site with hundreds of men, was quite alienating and frustrating, at times.


The first day of my internship I arrived with three other interns, two young men and one other female. After being briefed on job site safety we were asked to visit the project’s head foreman, who called in two of his construction managers who would become our mentors. The first manager that arrived looked at all of us and immediately stated “I’ll take the two boys” and feeling a need to apologize, looked at me and the other female intern and said “sorry ladies, I don’t deal with women on this job.” Shortly after another manager arrived, upon seeing us two waiting he said “arethese the interns? I was expecting a couple of guys.” Since we were all that was left he had no choice. He led us to a Field Engineer, a recent college graduate and the only other woman on site that day, and told her to “take care of us.” Apparently, he could not be bothered with being our mentor.


Throughout the summer the two male interns were given jobs overseeing major tasks relating to mechanical equipment, electrical work, and concrete pouring, while the other female intern and I were asked to check if the finished apartments were painted, the marble was installed in the bathrooms, and the light fixtures were properly centered. It was easy to see that as females, we were given the tasks that required the least amount of effort and intelligence. After all, who goes to Engineering school to learn how to watch paint dry? It was aggravating to be doing such boring work; we wanted to be involved in actual construction tasks so as to truly learn engineering techniques applied in the field. After a few weeks of unsuccessfully trying to ask our mentor to give us more interesting work, we decide to seek help from the only female construction manager on site. She was a 50 year old Puerto Rican woman named Milly, who used to be a secretary for the company and fell in love with construction. She paid her way through night school and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After finishing her degree she was hired as a Construction Manager overseeing all the mechanical trades.


Milly became our mentor and made sure that we were always learning something from the tasks we were assigned. She also encouraged us to work separately because, as she would say “you’ll probably be the only woman on any site, better get used to it.” As expected, the work that we were given required us to constantly be around the tradesmen working, as opposed to before when we were mainly in empty finished apartments. I can only speak for myself, because I never asked the other female female intern how she felt or what kind of treatment she received, but it was at this point that I became the target of a lot of sexist, rude, and inappropriate remarks from some of the men. Many times as I walked on by, working men who would stop their work to stare and wolf whistle. Several times a day I had to say “no thank you” to men asking for my number or requesting to take me out on a date. On a few occasions I got called a bitch for refusing to reply to inappropriate remarks. Some men felt the need to give me “get fit” advice and make comments about my body, often pointing at my lack of physical strength as a sign of why I did not belong on a construction site: never mind that technological advances and strict safety codes has made the use of physical strength obsolete in most jobs. Once, I found myself in the middle of a storage room with one construction worker (whom I had never seen before that day) blocking the doorway and refusing to let me leave unless I accepted his request for a date.


I worked on the site for a year, after which I decided the stress of a workplace where I constantly felt harassed, belittled, and intimidated was not worth the effort. The constant fear that someone would make me feel uncomfortable or make a rude remark was making me lose my concentration, and on an active construction site, that is an actual safety hazard. I requested to work with the Project Managers who dealt with the Engineering consultants from the main office and only went on site for field meetings. Today, I am better equipped to deal with everyday sexism, but at 18 years old I was not. I never did report any of the many incidents of sexism and harassment that I endured. I was reluctant to do so for fear of being tagged as a complainer who could not handle the job.


Writing this was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I still love the construction industry and promote it as a great career choice for men and women who enjoy being active on their jobs.  For every man that demeaned me, there were dozens who uplifted me. For every man that made a sexist comment, there were scores who respected me and valued my work. For every man that harassed me, there were hundreds more who protected me as their coworker. The issue is not that all men refuse to work with women, the issue is that a few men who do not, make the working environment hostile and dangerous for women. Those few that harassed me had the power to ruin my day, alter my mind, and destroy my self confidence. We need to increase the number of women in the construction industry so that we are not a rarity. We must also encourage labor unions and construction employers to include sexual harassment training as part of their health and safety plans. Women deserve to have access to skilled trades, and they deserve to be respected as a fellow colleague. 


[Patricia Valoy is a Civil Engineer and an Assistant Project Manager at STV, an architectural, engineering, planning, environmental and construction management firm based in New York City. She is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Engineering in Applied Science, where she majored in Civil Engineering with a concentration in Construction Management. Patricia also is a co-host of a weekly radio show called, “Let Your Voice Be Heard.” The show’s mission is to spread awareness of social and political issues. In addition, she writes a blog about feminist issues and mentors high school and college students interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields. You can follow Patricia on Twitter at @besito86 and read her blog at www.patriciavaloy.blogspot.com.]


Historical Chemists


The twitter feed from @DoubleXSci since early December has featured Notable Historical and Modern Women in Science. Nearly 100 women were presented. Those women will be presented in a series here on the blog with the original tweeted links and information as well as with some additional information not able to be presented in 140 characters. Each woman could have multiple pages written on her; however, I have limited each to a paragraph. I hope you look up more on these women. 

The International Year of Chemistry 2011 recently wrapped up, so I’d like to share a little more about some historical women in chemistry.

Miriam the Alchemist By Michael Maier (1566-1622) 
The first historical woman in chemistry is perhaps Miriam the Alchemist, who lived in the 1st or 2nd century C.E. Her writings survived centuries. She has several aliases: Mary, Maria, and Miriam the Prophetess or Jewess. Even though she was an alchemist, which was mostly a mystical field during her time, her inventions and contributions yielded long-lived practical laboratory equipment. Miriam the Alchemist contributed major inventions and improvements to existing technology, as well as the water bath. The water bath is still in use today for many chemical experiments, as was dubbed “bain-marie” in the 14th century.  

Agnes Fay Morgan (1884-1968) was a pioneer in vitamin research. She earned her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D.  from the University of Chicago. She also established Iota Sigma Pi, an honor society for women chemists. Morgan received the Garvan Medal and the Borden Award and was the only one of her family to attend college. Her efforts brought both nutrition and home economics to scientific disciplines. Besides her teaching position and doing research in academia, she also was an accomplished administrator and worked with the government on many occasions. She had many firsts in her research and an enormous number of publications. 

Colloid Chemist Marjorie Jean Young Vold (1913-1991) was a prolific and distinguished scientist. She earned her B.S. and Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley. Vold balanced academic and industrial chemist careers spanning over five decades. At the age of 45, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but continued her dual chemistry careers despite being confined to a wheelchair. She was the LA Times Woman of the Year and received the Garvan Medal. One month before her death, Vold submitted her final paper, which was published posthumously.

Lucy Weston Pickett (1904-1997) chose a career in chemistry over marriage. She earned her B.A. and M.A. from Mt. Holyoke College and her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois and advanced through her academic career to become department chair. She received the Garvan Medal and two honorary D.Sc. degrees. She was so influential in her career that a fund was established in her name upon her retirement, which she requested be used to bring female speakers to the department. 

Mary Lura Sherrill (1888-1968) was known for synthesis of antimalarial drugs. She earned her B.A. and M.A. from Randolph-Macon College and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Her academic career included becoming the chair of her department. She also received the Garvan Medal. 

Ellen Swallow Richards
Chemist, Ecologist, and Home Economist Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) was one of Vassar College’s first graduates, with an A.B. She earned her B.S. from MIT as its first woman graduate and her M.A. from Vassar College the same year. She had many firsts, including improving the standard of living by applying chemistry to sanitation, opening up science for women, and developing the home economics movement. Richards was also the first woman member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers and first woman teacher at the MIT department of sanitary chemistry. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Smith College.

Grace Medes (1886-1967) was a pioneer in metabolism research.  She earned her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Kansas and her Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr. Her academic career progressed until she became a department head and chairman. She earned the Garvan Medal and several Distinguished Service Citations. Dr. Medes was at the forefront of cancer research and named a rare disease, tyrosinosis [PDF]. 

Marguerite Perey (1909-1975) was the first woman to enter the French Academy of Science in 300 years. She earned her Diplôme d’État de chimiste from École d’enseignement technique féminine and her doctorate from Sorbonne. She worked with Marie Curie and discovered the element francium. Perey received the Lavoisier Prize from the Academie des Sciences and the Silver Medal from the Societe Chimique de France. 

Mary Engle Pennington
Bacteriologist and Chemist Mary Engle Pennington (1872-1952) was a food preservation pioneer. Despite completing the requirements for a B.S. degree at the University of Pennsylvania, she was granted only a Certificate of Proficiency. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Pennington worked with the government although she hid her gender to receive her credentials. Called “ice woman” due to her advances in food preservation and refrigeration, she was known for a warm personality. Pennington was awarded numerous fellowships and was a member of many other professional organizations and honoraries, and received the Notable Service Medal and the Garvan Medal. 

Pauline Beery Mack (1891-1974) was an instructor and publisher and loved chemistry. She earned her B.A. from Missouri State University, M.A. from Columbia University, Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State College, and a D.Sc. from Moravian College for Women, Western College for Women. She began the publication the Chemistry Leaflet which eventually became published by the American Chemical Society. She received the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania Medal, the Garvan Medal, and the Astronauts Silver Snoopy Award. Dr. Mack also maintained a busy life outside of science, including basketball and music. She taught more than 12,000 undergraduates over her 30 years at Penn State. She was adept at securing funding for her research, no small feat for a woman in the 1930s. Mack continued into an administrative career and worked full time until she was 79.

Awards Mentioned:
The Garvan Medal is an award from the American Chemical Society to recognize distinguished service to chemistry by women chemists.

The Borden Award is given in recognition of distinctive research by investigators in the United States and Canada which has emphasized the nutritive significance of milk or any of its components. 

LA Times Woman of the Year began as annual awards ceremony to honor women for individual achievement and was awarded from 1950 to 1976. 

Lavoisier Prize (Lavoisier Medal) is awarded by the SCF to an individual or institution to distinguish the work or activities involving the chemistry honor.

Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania are those whose achievements on a national and statewide scale have been so outstanding that they have brought honor and respect to the commonwealth. 

Astronauts Silver Snoopy Award candidates will have made contributions toward enhancing the probability of mission success, or made improvements in design, administrative/technical/production techniques, business systems, flight and/or systems safety or identification and correction or preventive action for errors.

Much of the information for this post came from the book Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary edited by Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara S. Shearer. 

Adrienne M Roehrich, Double X Science Chemistry Editor