Posts Tagged ‘plant’

Fever dreams – the true tale of Richard Spruce

// March 26th, 2012 // 4 Comments » // Drugs

Richard Spruce had seen some strange villages since arriving in South America in 1849, but this one took the cake. It was a ghost town. Every door was shut tight against the hot, humid jungle, while inside people slumbered away the sunlight.

Being the adventurous sort, he couldn’t comprehend such laziness, not, that is, until he mopped his clammy brow. His hand returned smeared with squashed mosquitoes and his own bright red blood.

He reflected, not for the first time, that life in the jungle wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, all things considered. Charles Darwin had joyfully described the Brazilian rainforest as “a great wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse.” The tales of Alfred Wallace, a fellow young botanist, absolutely dripped with adventure.

Money truly did grow on trees here – there was a fortune to be made by transporting unusual plant species to England, where new novelties for Victorian gardens fetched a pretty penny.

Plus, the trailblazers in taxonomy whispered, it was delightfully warm, warm being a most thrilling word to Brits.

Had they mentioned the innumerable insects? If so, he still hadn’t expected the particular, primal discomforts of living in a cloud of whining and dining mosquitoes. Likewise, he hadn’t realised that breathing the air’s rich humidity would be as drinking tepid whisky through a straw. Nor how hot the nights were, wrapped tight as a flower bud in his stockings and blanket with a handkerchief over the face to ward away bloodsucking bats.

Nonetheless, Richard Spruce was not one to fret. He was of unfazeable stock, and though inch of his bare skin was soon in welts (not to mention his unmentionables), he followed the river and its plethora of plants to plunder. The cloud of mosquitoes followed too.

It’s not surprising what happened next.

The fever came on suddenly; a shivering, sweating, aching fever that rendered him helpless, striking him down mid-step on the border of Venezuela and Colombia.

His guides carried him shaking to a village. He knew the symptoms, hell he’d seen it before, but he denied his own diagnosis. Though he had the cure in his pocket, quinine from the bark from the Cinchona tree, he was loath to take its bitter rescue. He didn’t want it to be malaria.

Like a pot of swamp water on the boil, was his brain, his temperature climbing like lianas, curling like fern fronds, perching like epiphytic orchids. Images sprung forth from his fertile mind. The first two days he flashed on those damn mosquitoes, a haze of infected blood cells bursting. It didn’t make sense! The mosquitoes had left him three days ago. Certainly it wasn’t malaria, certainly, for it had been weeks since he was around the bad air of stale water, giving the Italian term mal’aria. Still he kept seeing mosquitoes.

As the fever broke into freezing chills, Richard’s guides began to mutter. When those chills turned once more to fever, they sensed his impending demise and sold his scientific equipment for rum. The patient was in no condition to care.

Spruce was stuck on mosquitoes, thriving in stagnant water and stale air, their droning drilled through his brain. He shrunk to the size of a grain of pollen and was sucked up like whisky through a mosquito’s straw. Inside the mosquito gut (it sure was hot and sticky) blood cells burst to release hideous parasites. These sex cells, for he identified them thus as surely as an anther and stigma, combined inside the mosquito. In the gut wall they formed cysts full of eggs. Or were they seeds? Or ferns?

Whatever they were, they grew for over a week, and exploded (much like his mind) yielding youngsters that frolicked freely.

Richard wasn’t frolicking. By the twinges in his aching joints, he knew the pangs of an elderly mosquito carrying young parasites, which had moved to his salivary gland to yield virulent juices. Next time he ate, dipping his mosquito’s double straw through the skin, spitting and sucking simultaneously, he would administer his chemical cocktail – anaesthetics to dull the pain, anti-blood clotting agents and, of course, the parasites.

Through the whisky straw Richard swirled, straight to the liver. His own liver, human and wracked with heat. From the liver, parasites paraded to the blood cells. Inside they ate oxygen-carrying haemoglobin and ran round after round of asexual reproduction, like spores or strawberry runners, each strawberry red and juicy, dripping. Each round took three days to replicate, feast and rupture the blood cells, like clockwork, and his body followed the same ticking cycle, burning fever following freezing chills following fever. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Richard shivered.

From outside he heard the nurse employed for his care, drunkenly yell “die, you English dog, that we may have a merry valorio with your dollars.” Well may she want a valorio, or watch night, but Richard was no a corpse.

After fifteen days of dreaming fever, he relented. Malaria it was. He took the bark of Cinchona trees, which kept him alive (just) by reducing his extreme body heat and causing the haemoglobin-chomping parasites to choke on their own waste. Such sweet relief from such bitter bark.

Thirty-eight days after his collapse, Richard was alive, but exhausted. His full recovery took many months more though, naturally, he kept collecting plants once he found new equipment.

Trudging onwards, Richard felt naught but respect and gratitude for the fine tree, Cinchona (though he preferred moss as a general rule).

Ten years later, having bushwhacked his way through saucer-sized tarantulas and marching fire ants, Richard found himself in the Andes. Gone were the South American rainforests, here roamed high altitude winds and freezing snows. After so long in the heat, the extreme chilliness didn’t suit him at all. But, onwards and upwards, as they say, and he was here to hunt Cinchona trees.

The trees were in high demand by the British and Dutch, both needing supplies for their malaria-wracked colonies. They had no steady supply, as the species had never been cultivated. There were sincere concerns that people would harvest it into extinction.

Richard spent a cold, windswept year collecting seeds and growing young plants. Almost 700 seedlings, well wrapped in moss, were tended all the way to England by a gardener assigned to their care. From the survivors, more than two hundred thousand precious plants were sent on to grow in Indian plantations.

Richard’s success with the species that saved his life did nothing less than change the world, making the heart of Africa habitable and saving millions of lives – but in the end he paid for it with his own health. Another disease cost him the use of his limbs, and he spent the rest of his days on a small pension in Britain.

Today, malaria kills around two million people each year and infects 200 million more. It has quite possibly killed more people throughout history than all our wars and plagues combined. Quinine, along with other chemicals, is still used for cures and prevention, and is gathered from the decedents of Richard Spruce’s trees.

Drinking notes: Enjoy this true tale with warm whisky or gin and tonic. Small quantities of Quinine are added to some brands of tonic water for flavour. Fluorescent, the chemical glows under black light. Many thanks to highly informative Flower Hunters by Mary and John Gribbin for the biography of Richard Spruce.

Gold nanoparticles make plants glow in the dark

// November 8th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work, Recent Research, The Realm of Bizzare

Image by Yellowcloud

Imagine if instead of having sensor lights to illuminate a garden path, you could line it with light-emitting plants. You could stroll along bio-luminescent flower beds, dancing in dappled moonlight and delighting in eerily lit peace, free from the shackles of electricity.

It could be possible with sea urchin shaped gold nanoparticles. Seriously, every time I turn on my computer the world gets more random. Sea urchins, I ask you. In any event, they’re called nano-sea-urchins.

Taiwanese researchers made a solution of gold nano-sea-urchins and dipped into it an aquatic plant, Bacopa caroliniana or blue waterhyssop. The nanoparticles moved into the plant over a day or so, and stayed there for about a month.

When exposed to UV light, the nanoparticles produced blue-violet light which encouraged the chlorophyll inside the plant to make red light. The result? An awesome glowing plant, just add UV.

It’s exciting stuff, there are a lot of excellent uses for light emitting things that work inside plants or animals. If the particles could be attached to a drug we could track exactly where the drug goes over the course of a treatment. You could attach it to proteins and find out where they are located inside a plant. Or you could just have a sweet glow in the dark plant in your house or garden.

Of course, you still need to have that UV source. But what’s wrong with having black light in your house or garden? Just think of the possibilities… You could drink tonic water every day, that stuff glows blue in black light because of the quinine.

Also, if you’ve ever wondered if black light can cause sunburn (as I recently have) here’s the low down. Black light is made of UV light which is close in wavelength to visible light, so it’s quite low energy. This counts as UVA, not UVB which causes most sunburns. Large amounts of UVA (such as those found in tanning beds) can cause skin cancer or premature aging, but the small amount contained in black lights is unlikely to do much damage.

ResearchBlogging.orgSu, Y., Tu, S., Tseng, S., Chang, Y., Chang, S., & Zhang, W. (2010). Influence of surface plasmon resonance on the emission intermittency of photoluminescence from gold nano-sea-urchins Nanoscale DOI: 10.1039/C0NR00330A

Hat tip to New Scientist

Pea found growing in lung

// August 15th, 2010 // 4 Comments » // The Realm of Bizzare

Well it don’t happen every day. The BBC reported last week that a Massachusetts man was rushed to hospital with a collapsed lung. X-rays revealed that a 1.25 centimeter pea plant had sprouted inside his lung. He’d been battling emphysema for months, perhaps the extra moisture helped germination. He’s now recovering at home.

When I was young I was always slightly terrified that I would accidentally eat an apple seed and die from a tree growing inside my stomach. Fortunately we have acid in our stomachs that stops that kind of thing (right guys? I can eat apples now, right?) I grew up on horror stories of ancient torture techniques where someone was forced to lie on a table while bamboo shoots grew from under them and THROUGH them. That is not cool.

Then there’s the Triffids, and the pod people, and the druids who imprisoned people in the hollows of oaks! Who does that to someone?

You know what, I’m just not going to think about it. I ate a watermelon seed today, and I’m just not going to think about it.

How does a pea start growing in a lung? Is it something that could pretty easily happen?

Doctors say that in this case, the man must have accidentally inhaled a pea a dinner. The pea found itself in a warm, moist locale with a good source of oxygen and decided to give it a shot. Poor choice, mister Pea.

I wonder if there are any more cases where plants have started sprouting inside someone…

Miracle fruit makes life a little sweeter

// May 5th, 2010 // 10 Comments » // Drugs, How Things Work, Just for Fun, The Realm of Bizzare

A mouthful changes your perception of taste, making everything you eat for an hour afterward taste sweet. Lemons taste like oranges, oranges taste delightful, strawberries are to die for. Sounds like something illicit, a taste trip.

It was about a year ago I first heard of miracle fruit. It’s a berry from West Africa. There’s a chemical inside aptly called miraculin which is responsible for the flavour changing fun. Miraculin is a protein with some carbohydrate chains attached. It might work by changing the structure of taste buds, causing the sweet receptors to be activated by normally sour tasting acids. So if you have some lemon juice, your sweet receptors go “ooh, that’s sweet!” and your brain buys it. It’s a tad dodgy, as large amounts of lemon juice make you feel disgusting. May help with the treatment of scurvy though.

Miraculin and miracle fruit do not taste sweet themselves unlike curculin, a protein which comes from a plant in Malaysia that has similar taste-changing properties. There’s another plant derived class of chemical called gymnemic acids, which has the opposite effect. It’s an anti-sweetener that lasts for 10 minutes, and makes sugar water taste like regular water.

According to the Wiki Gods, a company planned to bring it to the USA as a food sweetener in the 1970’s. The FDA tentatively approved it as “generally regarded as safe” because people had been eating it for so long with no ill effects. But at the last minute, they changed their mind and said it was considered a food additive which needed more stringent testing. The company didn’t have the cashola to fund it, so that was the end of the mass market plan. For now anyway.

Want to go on your own taste trip? You can buy tablets containing dried miracle fruit from the internets. They ship all over the world. Some people like to have miracle fruit parties, where they serve a range of foodstuffs and provide the magic tablet.

It sounds like a drug to me. And drugs are bad, mmkay. A Schooner of Science is not responsible for your crazy shenanigans. But if you’ve tried it, tell me about it and post a comment below.






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