Excerpts from Recent Articles from 2001

2001 Back Issues

The sweet side of life - December 2001
There are four basic tastes…so we are told. Any other taste is a mere combination of these four. Which four? Bitter, sweet, sour and salty. However, a fifth taste – of Asian heritage – is seeping into the Western World and gaining fast recognition: the umami (oo-mom-ee) taste. A taste qualified as meaty or savoury. All these tastes are recognised as such thanks to specific taste receptors and our brain. Some tastes are proteins and are already used in the industry as natural sweeteners, for example. Among such taste proteins, there is one in particular – miraculin – which lacks taste completely when absorbed on its own but has the power of modifying a disagreeable taste into a pleasant one. (PDF version - 40K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Miraculin, Richadella dulcifica : P13087
Of buttons, digestion and glue - November 2001
As children, we were told that milk was good for our bones and teeth. No one told us though how essential this natural opaque white liquid has been for humans in the past millennia. Cow’s milk is about 88% water, 3.3% protein and the rest is carbohydrate and fat. Caseins are the major milk proteins, and the yellowish gelatinous mixture that forms the milk curd is packed full of them. Curds were used by the Ancient Egyptians as a fixative for pigments in wall paintings and, since the Renaissance, casein has been used as a binder for paints. A particularly good adhesive for wood, casein glue was already used in the 18th century in the construction of chalets in Switzerland and was particularly popular for the construction of the wooden frame parts of aircraft during World War I. However, casein glue absorbs moisture, which more often than not results in the growth of fungal mould, which in turn weakens the adhesiveness of the glue. (PDF version - 100K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Alpha S1 casein, Homo sapiens (Human): P47710
Beta casein, Homo sapiens (Human): P05814
Kappa casein, Homo sapiens (Human): P07498
Alpha S1 casein, Bos taurus (Bovine): P02662
Alpha S2 casein, Bos taurus (Bovine): P02663
Beta casein, Bos taurus (Bovine): P02666
Kappa casein, Bos taurus (Bovine): P02668
Qui dort dîne - October 2001
In China, there is an old legend which says that Buddha (?563-483 BC) slit his eyelids off in a struggle to stay awake. They fell to the moist ground below, from which grew a red flower, the opium poppy. Opium was used as a narcotic as early as 4’000 BC in Sumerian and European cultures. In 1753, the Swedish botanist Linnaeus classified the poppy as Papaver somniferum, a sleep-inducing plant. Would it not be handy to discard one’s eyelids to fight off somnolence? Patients suffering from narcolepsy would certainly agree. Narcolepsy is an inconvenient sleep disorder where those afflicted with it fall asleep at any time of the day. Since 1998, much research has been made in this field following the discovery of a small protein that has a role in our state of wakefulness: hypocretin. (PDF version - 61K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Orexin, Bos taurus (Bovine): P56717
Orexin, Canis familiars (Dog): Q9GLF6
Orexin, Homo sapiens (Human): O43612
Orexin, Mus musculus (Mouse): O55241
Orexin, Sus scrofa (Pig): O77668
Orexin, Rattus norvegicus (Rat): O55232
Princess Bala's sting - September 2001
‘Zookeepers are trained to inspect and monitor service portal perimeters before opening and while inserting their arms. Always use long forceps to change food dishes or remove debris.’ Against which animal could these warnings be for? A ferocious feline? A vicious viper? A ruthless rodent? Nope. An ant. Paraponera clavata, otherwise known as the bullet ant. Bullet ants are jet black and about 25mm in length. They are amongst the most primitive of the ant species: their social organisation is envied by no other species of ant and their queen is barely larger than her subjects. Princess Bala in the famous movie Antz was named so after the Spanish ‘bala’ meaning ‘bullet’. And the bullet ant is also known as the bala ant for the same reason. (PDF version - 50K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Poneratoxin, Paraponera clavata (Bullet ant): P41736
Gloves, condoms and bouncy balls - August 2001
Gloves can be dangerous. Yes, but so can rubber soles, condoms, swimming caps, various medical appliances and even toys. And the offender is latex. Latex is the milky fluid tapped from rubber trees, which – following a series of processes – produces the different types of rubber used by the commercial, medical, transportation and defence industries. To date, natural rubber is used in over 40’000 products. And it is nothing new. Ancient Mesoamerican societies were already harvesting latex in 1600 BC from the Panama rubber tree or Castilla elastica. Not only were they harvesting it but they also processed it in order to obtain a pliable bouncy rubber, by adding the sap extracted from a second plant – a species of morning glory vine or Ipomoea alba – which grows on C.elastica. With the rubber, they fashioned hollow rubber figurines, wide rubber bands and bouncy balls with which they are said to have played violent games. Liquid rubber was used for medicines and paint. (PDF version - 58K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Small rubber particle protein, Hevea brasiliensis (Para rubber tree): O82803
Why Pooh luvvs hunny - July 2001
Beekeeping is one of the healthiest professions they say. Apparently, apiarists have fewer illnesses than most other humans. They never seem to have cancer or arthritis, or other kinds of immune disease and they even live longer. Though one could rightly argue whether the number of beekeepers in the world represents a significant sample of the human population, it is a fact that the healing properties of honey, and bee products in general, have been popular in a number of civilisations for thousands of years. (PDF version - 303K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Melittin, Apis mellifera (Honeybee): P01501
Melittin, Apis cerana (Indian honeybee): Q8LW54
Melittin, Apis dorsata (Giant honeybee): P01502
Melittin, Apis florae (Little honeybee): P01504
The greenest of us all - June 2001
A bulb emitting light seems quite natural but…a jellyfish? As early as the first century, Pliny described the light of Pulmo marinus, now known as Pelagia noctiluca, a purple jellyfish. Bioluminescence is a spectacular phenomenon which predates by far the electric bulb and on which much research has been done since the 18th century. Jellyfish have been squeezed through cheesecloth, rubbed onto countless surfaces and submitted to electrical stimuli; all for the sake of a green glow. Jellyfish are not the only species to luminesce; corals, sea gooseberries, fish, bacteria, toadstools, plankton, fungus, glow-worms and many more also do. And the glow is not only green but for some, yellow, red, cyan or blue. (PDF version - 48K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Green fluorescent protein, Aequoria victoria (Jellyfish): P42212
Fat, wonderful fat - May 2001
Fat is not a passive depository of grease. Fat is, in effect, quite precious and fulfils multiple functions in our bodies. Now there’s a thought in a day and age where the slightest lipid bump is deemed ungracious! It cushions our fingertips and eye sockets, and acts as a shock absorber in our knee joints and heels. It blankets our internal organs and lines our bellies, seals perforations within internal organs and may well play a role in local immune responses. Adolescents need fat to mature sexually, young women need fat to cope with pregnancy and, in older women, fat protects bones from the effects of menopause. (PDF version - 37K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Perilipin, Homo sapiens (Human): O60240
Perilipin, Rattus norvegicus (Rat): P43884
Protein of the 20th century - April 2001
Insulin should have been named protein of the 20th century. It was one of the first proteins to be crystallised in pure form, in 1926. It was the first protein to be fully sequenced in 1955, the first protein to be chemically synthesized in 1958 – though in insufficient quantities to be produced commercially – and the first human protein to be manufactured by way of biotechnology in 1979. Indeed, insulin has been on the forefront of Science for more than half a century. And why? Because of diabetes. (PDF version - 70K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Insulin, Bos taurus (Bovine): P01317
Insulin, Homo sapiens (Human): P01318
Insulin, Sus scrofa (Pig): P01315
When your day draws to an end - March 2001
How long can you stay awake? In 1988, Robert McDonald from California managed to trick his sleep for 18 days, 21 hours and 40 minutes. But what exactly was he tricking? Two thousand years ago, it was believed that drowsiness was due to stomach vapours - themselves the result of digestion - which rose to the brain, condensed there and blocked the pores. The head was thus cut off from the rest of the body and sleep ensued. This mechanical concept of sleep survived for almost two millennia. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that a more subtle approach was made, separately, by Kuniomi Ishimori in Japan and Henri Piéron in France. What if sleep were the result of “fatigue substances” that are accumulated during the period of wakefulness and dissipated while sleeping? The hypothesis had its ups and downs. However, in the 1960s, Marcel Monnier and his associates in Switzerland discovered the existence of a very small peptide that seemed to have sleep-inducing effects: the Delta Sleep-Inducing Peptide or DSIP. (PDF version - 40K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Delta sleep-inducing peptide, Oryctolagus cuniculus (European rabbit): P01158
When a frog swallows a fly - February 2001
When you punch a hole in a tyre, it deflates. Besides being simple, it is a strategy that is used by a number of plants and animals as a means of defence. To this end, they make use of antimicrobial peptides which alter the enemy’s cellular membrane in such a way that the inside leaks out, or the outside leaks in, thus causing cell death. Antimicrobial peptides have been discovered in all kinds of organisms, from fruit flies to horseshoe crabs, and honeybees to humans. It is a rapid immune response to microbes that surround us daily. When a frog swallows a fly, it also ingurgitates an army of microbes, which have to be eliminated or, at least, whose growth rate has to be checked. Magainins, from the Hebrew “magain” meaning shield, do just this and they were the first antimicrobial peptides to have been described. (PDF version - 79K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Magainin, Xenopus laevis (African clawed frog): P11006
The tale of a love song - January 2001
Romeo chose to sing softly to Juliette after dusk, on a warm summer’s night. And the onset of daylight, like the blowing of a cool breeze, would only have interfered with his lyrical hum. Drosophila has no such qualms when playing a serenade to the loved one. Neither a change in light nor a change in temperature has any effect on the fruit fly’s courtship song. What is Drosophila’s light- and temperature-insensitive love song? Put bluntly, it is a case of acoustic communication with an end to mate. Just like Romeo. (PDF version - 52K bytes)
Swiss-Prot cross references
Period circadian protein, Drosophila melanogaster (Fruit fly): P07663


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