Sunday, May 17, 2009

Notes On Campestris

Imagine, if you will, instead of saying occasionally over your coffee, "The rainforest is just chock full of stuff we haven't even discovered yet," you just woke up one day, got ready for work, went to work, and when you got there announced to your coworkers, "I'm going to do a survey of as many things as I've got handy for chemicals and substances useful to man."  Hmmm... but I don't live in the rainforest you might explain to me.  That's true.  Perhaps it is even sad.  Couldn't really say, I have never been to the rainforest myself.

However, though I can't speak for places like New York City and San Francisco, I live in the third (depending... sometimes the second) most complex terrestrial ecosystem on earth, outside of the Rainforest.  The swampy areas, and the mixed hardwood forest of my neck of the woods provide an enormous catalog of known and unknown biology and especially chemical things.

Fifty years ago, a Dr. Allene Rosalind Jeanes decided to treat her environment as such a fascinating place.  She did a survey of a huge roster of items in the environs in which she lived and worked (she looked at stuff from other places as well.)  She found a lot of interesting stuff, but nothing quite so interesting to me as a little bug that had been plaguing Rutabaga's for years.

There are some things in this world that are probably just fun to say.  "Banana" comes to mind.  Of course, with repeated use even the strangest words become pretty mundane.  When was the last time you asked someone, "Tell me again, what does 'googol' mean?"  "Google" is definitely a strange word (and properly spelled, idea), but nowadays it just trips off the tongue like "mom" or "dad."  

Rutabaga was, for me as a child, such a word.  And it never became unfun to say.  Even nowadays, when a Rutabaga is a food available pretty much everywhere at the grocery, it still can be counted on to amuse people on occasion.  So it was with some delight that I read Dr. Allene Rosalind Jeanes found a useful substance related to Rutabagas.   Apparently the history of Rutabagas will regale you with tales of a slime that attacks the poor innocent tubers ala 1950's style movies.  Mother and father Rutabagas keep their kids in line by telling them, you better watch out or Xanthomonas campestris will get them.  Seriously.

Basically everything is fine in a field of Rutabagas and then BAM! they get all slimy and nasty.  So, one of the things the intrepid Dr. Jeanes swabbed for analysis was the jelly like exuded Rutabaga pus... just in case, you know.

Well, God bless her, for it is one of the only industrially useful polysaccharides that can be scaled to production so that it might be used in industries as unrelated as oil well drilling and confectionary (although that is a really bad example.  I was kidding with my buddy Jaz today at the coffee shop about how much he hates the "grape kool aide" flavor that anyone who has ever eaten grape candy will instantly remember.  He was excited about some new Hawaiian Punch flavor that has come out.  And I told him that the classic "grape" that has been in candy and gum and Kool Aide for years, is actually a component of jet fuel as well.  I think it is a surfactant, which are extremely common in fuels to keep all the plumbing of combustive machinery clear.  A woman behind me loudly said, "Your kidding."  I just told her I am a little obsessed with flavors and smells and I am quite sure that many of them are derived from petroleum in any case.  She looked like I rained on her parade.  Personally I like the flavor, but have my entire life been amused at it's almost parodic lack of relation to the fruit known as "grape".  Because I come from a family that talks about keytones the way Billy Joe McCallister's friends family talked about passing the potatoes, I happen to realize that scientists were in fact only attempting to isolate a very small part of the huge spectrum of qualities that is a grape. That is why "grape" and grape, are so dissimilar.  I have to admit, as well, that the food scientists, while they may do a great job making french fries taste like they were fried in beef fat, when they weren't, are still doing a pretty crappy job of making fruit flavors replicate the incredibly tasteful aesthetic that mother nature had down a million years ago.)  So instead of oil drilling and confectionary, I'll say salad dressing and pesticides.  

I was sitting in the  I.U. Biology library when I learned this and I almost thought I could hear the angels singing, to say nothing of the way they touched their harps.  Xanthan gum, a substance I had seen at the health food store for ten years, and had read in the ingredients lists of everything I eat my entire life, is a kind of waste product of bacteria.  And we love to eat it.  Man.  Isn't life great.

You probably think I am joking;  that's good.  I'm not.

  Just reading about a Rutabaga disease that is yummo, doesn't necessarily get the subject into this blog, but the next thing about Xanthan gum (which, by the way, I have been calling Xanthem gum my whole life for no good reason) that just flipped my wig was its bizarre properties.  It is stable across a swath of PH that must be very nearly unequaled in nature.  From PH of 2 to PH of 11.  PH of 2 is about as bad as acid rain ever gets.  Say, a beautiful spring day in Szechaun Province right about now.  The most tart lemons will have a PH of 2.  PH 11 on the other hand is Drano.  Or, around the PH your great great great grandparents might have used to make soap with lye.  I was reading a horribly researched list of "common chemicals available at the store" on Wikipedia.  The list was put together due to the fact that it is pseudo illegal to buy chemicals through the mail, or at the very least expensive to have them transported over state lines without breaking laws, ect.  (I wonder if anyone still sells chemistry sets.  It doesn't seem like it.  God, what a shame.)  So I was looking through this list and they recommended next to the chemical name, sodium hydroxide (caustic soda, lye) ----- Drano.  I laughed out loud.  What the hell?  I'm not going to do an experiment calling for caustic soda and use Drano.  Why not Red Devil from the drug store?  You get the feeling some people think it's a gas to approximate something specific and somewhat critical, rather than just ask a simple question of a pharmacist.  My name on Wikipedia is Carnyland (for editing, ect.), so the crazy person that put the goofy suggestion of substituting Drano for lye, is probably thinking I work for the man.  And he/she is right.  The most common use for caustic soda (for normal do it yourselfers) other than soap is for making BioDiesel.  You do not want the detergents in Drano in your biodiesel.  Hopefully people realize this.  

So anyway, if you wanted, you can thicken up your Drano sometime with Xanthan gum.  Or if you'd rather, you can make atomic puckering popsicles with acetic acid, sugar, and Xanthan gum.  The Xanthan gum doesn't really care.  Apparently the molecule of Xanthan gum has a kind of helical structure where, depending on the Ionic changes in a solution, the arms of the helix fold down against it's core, protecting the core from dissolution.  Just remarkable.  

Xanthan gum also is incredibly resistant to changes in its properties across huge temperature variations.  From way below zero, to somewhat above boiling.  Why is this molecule so wonderful?

So, even though I had seen Xanthan gum for sale a million times, I have finally decided to bite the bullet and use it to kill weeds with this sulphuric acid I have.  I'll just make a solution with a PH of 2, add Xanthan gum (about 2 percent sets up really well, but .05 percent begins to give a solution a profound change in viscosity.)  Then when it's all mixed up, and my endorphins are firing like crazy due to my lengthy fantasy about just such a moment, I will slather all the weeds in my garden with this stuff.  And wait.

My guess is that the weeds will die back, but simply return a week later.  I don't really know.  But is just seems like fun.  Compared to using RoundUp, which I don't have a problem with, but I feel guilty using it in a town like Bloomington, on the outside chance that it causes birth defects or something, should it in fact get into the water system (which Monsanto claims is impossible due to the fact that it supposedly turns into "harmless salts" the moment it hits soil.  I hate to say it, but I believe Monsanto.  Funny thing is that Monsanto actually developed a plant that had some of the genetic material of Xanthomonas campestris welded into its DNA.  The plant produced gum in its leaves, but Monsanto had trouble convincing itself that people would smack their foreheads with pleasure at such a form of progress, should they find out.  They discontinued the program for now.  It's gonna be awhile before someone beats bacterial fermentation at this game.  Maybe never.)

So that's about it, really.  I'll never look at a Rutabaga the same.  I was sitting with some friends at the local Video Saloon, a somewhat less seedy bar than it used to be now that you can't smoke.  But none the less, it is the place where everyone goes to top off their inebriation in the last moments of legal alcohol purchases.  About one step away from waiting in line with a bunch of early morning drunks for the grocery to open for business.  So I was sitting there, with these childhood friends of mine.  They all decided to play a game, since we had gotten kinda bored, it was late... ect.  So we played this game where you go down the alphabet and have to think of an animal.  So the first guy says "Antelope" and the next guy says, "Bear."  Really stretching our intellectual muscles.  At a couple of points I could hardly think of something, which happens to me when I'm on the spot, so I stewed.  One of the times I couldn't think of something, I was supposed to come up with an animal starting with the letter "X".  I thought of the, err.... "animal."  

"What the hell is Xanthomonas campestris?"  someone was drunk enough to ask without thinking.  I was only too happy to tell them.  As, I'm sure you can tell.

"It all started with the pathology of Rutabaga disease..."

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