Category Archives: chemistry

Hacking Your DNA: A 360 film featuring Biohacker Josiah Zayner

Have you ever wanted to hack your DNA, editing away disease or improve your strength and athletic performance? Well, I have always been quite curious about it and so I got together with my friend Boonsri Srinivasan, and visited biohacker Josiah Zayner’s home lab. Armed with our 360 camera we made a short film, “Hacking Your DNA”, which gives you a unique and immersive experience into a do-it-yourself lab. You too can look around and explore the workings of a DIY lab, just like us.

Making headlines in the New York Times, Wired, New Scientist and other major news outlets, Zayner is known for pushing the boundaries of DIY self experimentation. Most recently he performed a CRISPR experiment on himself – injecting into his muscle, DNA containing the Cas9 protein and guideRNA(gRNA) targeted to his Myostatin gene (a gene involved in muscle inhibition). By doing this Zayner not only sought larger muscles but became the first person in the world to genetically modify his own DNA.

Zayner is not just some science enthusiast, he is a trained scientist and worked at NASA before starting his own company, The ODIN. He believed more science can be done if it is accessible to the public and that is why he is selling genetic engineering kits, so science can be done anywhere, not just in a scientific laboratory.

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Multicoloured Natural Phenomena

Waking up to an  overcast sky on a Monday morning doesn’t do wonders for the mood. I decided to explore some picturesque places that would definitely brighten and add colour to anyone’s day.

Roussillion Ochres

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From yellow through to violet, iron oxides in the sand colour the cliffs around Roussillion, France.

Ochre Mines below the village of Roussillon in the Luberon of Provence. Image by James Martin

Ochre Mines below the village of Roussillon in the Luberon of Provence. Image by
James Martin

The rich deposits of ochre pigments made Roussillon famous not only for its beauty but also for its wealth in the textile industry – “as many as seventeen different shades of dye were manufactured from the local rock during the 18th and 19th centuries and into the 20th”. To protect the site from degradation or complete destruction, the mining of ochre in this area is now prohibited.

This video beautifully illustrates the story of Roussillion and its ochres.

The Seven Coloured Earths

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Situated on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, lies this multi-coloured beauty. seven seven earth It is the only place in the “world where one can see earth of seven different colors in one place” – red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow. The time of day influences the colour and colour intensity.

The vivid colours have not only captivated tourists as geologists have long been fascinated with the dunes  “ever since they were first discovered. This natural phenomena has several unsolved mysteries. The colors never disappear in spite of torrential downpours and the sand dunes never erode. In addition, the Coloured Earths has a strange property of settling into their individual colors. Even if they are mixed with other colors, they will eventually settle back into layers of individual color”.

Multicoloured Lake

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Multi-coloured lake. Image from: http://scenery.cultural-china.com

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Located in Jiuzhaigou, China this lake has an exquisite patchwork of colours: pale red, bright yellow, greenish black, dark blue and pale blue.

This colourful phenomenon results from the distributional difference of calcium deposits, algae, ferns and sunken plants on the bottom of the lake.

Colour Changing Chalice

Not only a tongue twister, this colour changing chalice left scientists in knots as they struggled for decades to understand how it worked. Known as the Lycurgus Cup, it is both the only  figural example of a type of vessel known as a ‘cage-cup’ and the only complete Roman glass object made from dichroic glass.
Lycurgus Cup is made of dichroic glass and appears jade green when lit from the front. © Trustees of the British Museum

Lycurgus Cup (4th century AD) is made of dichroic glass and appears jade green when lit from the front. © Trustees of the British Museum

What is so fascinating about this chalice is that is changes colour depending if light is shone from the front or back. This colourful secret intrigued scientists and it wasn’t  until 1990 they attributed this colour change to nanotechnology.
The Roman artisans “impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt.”  When light hits the metal nanoparticles, the electrons in the metal are excited in ways that alter the colour depending on the observer’s position.
Lycurgus Cup is made of dichroic glass and appears blood red when lit from the back. © Trustees of the British Museum

Lycurgus Cup is made of dichroic glass and appears blood red when lit from the back. © Trustees of the British Museum

I stumbled upon this beautiful chalice in a recent Smithsonian Magazine article as it seems scientists are tamping into this 1,600-year-old “technology” to create “super­sensitive new technology that might help diagnose human disease or pinpoint biohazards at security checkpoints”.
If you’re like me and want to see the real thing you need to get yourself down to the British Museum.

A Colourful Success in Medicine

I’d like to share this video with you (I love it so much I have posted it twice on my Twitter account, so I have to apologise if you follow me and are fed up with this link).

You may be thinking, “you’re not a surgeon, so why are you so excited by this?”, well although I think Quyen Nguyen is working on a fantastic idea for cancer surgery, my reason for liking this video is more of the historical link between colour and medicine.

I remember when I first learnt about William Perkin in A-Level chemistry and to this day I am still so impressed by how one man’s accidental discovery influenced many facets of our society.

In 1856, the only viable antimalarial drug was quinine, and with its demand beginning to surpass its available supply, an 18-year-old William Perkin set out to try to make it synthetically, using the waste product coal-tar. Perkin’s synthesis didn’t go quite to plan and he was instead left with a black sludge which he later refined into a vivid purple hue. Being the shrewd person he realised its potential as a textile dye and knew not to discard this discovery. He later named this colour mauve and it became known as the first synthetic dye. After patenting his dye Perkin set up a factory in Greenford Green (London, UK) with his father and brother. With Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie of France seen to endorse the colour, “mauve mania” spread and commercial success was soon achieved.

William Perkin holding a sample of fabric dyed with his chemical discovery: mauve.

William Perkin holding a sample of fabric dyed with his chemical discovery: mauve.

Perkin’s discovery is remarkable not only because it had an impact on fashion and society (working class people could readily afford colourful textiles), it also led to further developments in synthetic colours, playing a huge role in medicine – the staining agent methylene blue was used by Koch to discover the bacilli of tuberculosis and cholera; and (one which I’m sure Perkin himself would be happy about) this same agent was shown by Ehrlich to have antimalarial properties. Perkin’s discovery also created further interest in organic chemistry which is still at the heart of today’s pharmaceutical industry.

The video above is just one example of how synthetic dyes are still playing a role in medicine and biomedical research. I love the back story – after all, who would have ever thought that the advancements in fashion and medicine were so closely linked!

Love this site – Everyday Chemistry

I just wanted to share this website I found, “The Human Touch of Chemistry”. It is fantastic for small quirky facts about everyday chemistry such as how superglue works, why turmeric turns red, why pumice stones float in water, etc.

Like, did you ever wonder what makes cold creams cold? Well, they contain a highly volatile ingredient known as…alcohol. Yes, and it is the alcohol that leaves you with the cooling effect when it evaporates.  As the website says, “Evaporation is an endothermic process that requires heat. The warmth of your skin is enough for the cream to start to evaporate….When applied to skin the alcohol in the cream being highly volatile uses the heat of the body to evaporate and thus gives you a cooling effect.”