Everyday Chemistry, Pain and why your fingers go wrinkly in the bath.

01 February 2004
Presented by Chris Smith


GM Cress to clear minefields, why fingers wrinkle in the bath, wristwatch can tell when you are fertile, bird (avian) flu serious problem in Asia, bets on Albatrosses to raise cash for conservation, plus interview guests Dr. John Emsley - "Vanity, Vitality and Virility (Viagra) - the chemistry of every day life" and Prof. Peter McNaughton discussing the science of pain and pain-relieving drugs.

In this episode

Gm Cress To Detect Landmines

Scientists in Denmark have produced a genetically modified cress plant that can detect landmines in soil. Carsten Meier and his colleagues from Aresa Biodetection, the company they have set up to develop the GM strain of Arabidopsis or Thale cress, have genetically modified the plant to make it change colour from green to red when it grows near an unexploded mine. Nitrogen dioxide gas released by the breakdown of TNT, the explosive used in 99% of landmines, triggers the plant to produce anthocyanin, the naturally-occurring plant pigment that colours beetroot and makes autumn leaves turn red. The colour change takes about 3 weeks to develop, although the scientists don't yet know how sensitive the cress is at detecting all the landmines in an area, and whether the technology will work in all types of soil. There are also concerns that open fields full of lush cress could attract livestock into the mined areas. But with an estimated 110 million landmines claiming 2000 victims per week across 70 countries worldwide, and the best de-mining personnel capable of clearing just 2 square metres of land a day, Meier and his team are confident that their genetically modified cress plant can make a significant contribution to the detection and clearance of landmines, particularly from agricultural land.

Sperm whale explodes en-route to a museum

- Exploding Sperm Whale

A very bad case of wind causes sperm whale to explode...

Exploding Sperm Whale

This week a giant sperm whale exploded in the streets of Taiwan.

Apparently, the 60 tonne whale, which had died after becoming stranded on a beach, was on it's way to a museum when it violently exploded, covering passers by in whale shrapnel. Nasty!

Marine biologists think that the explosion was triggered by gases accumulating inside the whale as it decomposed. A very bad case of wind, you might say...!

Drop of moisturiser on hand

- Why Do Our Fingers Wrinkle in The Bath

Scientists discover why skin wrinkles when it gets wet...

Why Do Our Fingers Wrinkle in The Bath

Our skin is like a suit of armour which keeps germs and dirt out, and our body fluids in. But it's not completely waterproof. The top layers of our skin are made of dried out, flattened dead cells and if you make the skin wet for any length of time, some of the water starts to seep into the dead cells and makes them swell up and form wrinkles.

The effect is most noticeable where our skin is thickest for protection, such as on our feet or on our hands.

You see wrinkles because as the water seeps into the skin it makes it expand, and rather like railway lines buckling on a hot day, the skin is pulled into a series of ridges and troughs.

Fortunately, it's not harmful and drying yourself off, or removing the offending boots or trainers, usually makes it go away quite quickly.


In 2013 UK scientists discovered that fingers go wrinkly in water to improve our grip on wet or submerged object. They also showed that it is in fact constricting blood vessels, not osmosis, that drives this change. 


Fertility Wristwatch

Knowing when the time is right to try for a baby could soon be as easy as checking the hour of the day. A technology firm has created a wristwatch which can tell when women are about to ovulate and are most likely to get pregnant. The PSC Fertility Monitor works by measuring the changes in the acidity of sweat. This is determined by hormone levels, which indicate how fertile the woman is. The results are displayed on the watchface. 'Trials show the device correctly predicts ovulation to within two days,' New Scientist magazine reported.

What Is Bird Flu, Is it The Same As Normal Human Flu?

Most people assume that flu is a human virus but it originally came from birds, and the strains of the virus that cause disease in people are slightly different to the strains that cause disease in birds. But occasionally the virus changes, or mutates, and gains the ability to jump the species barrier from birds to infect humans. This happened in Hong Kong in 1997. The virus rapidly gains a foothold and makes these people very unwell because their immune system, which is used to picking up human flu viruses, cannot recognise it the bird version and so the virus has a head start. The present outbreak started in South Korea in December. In Vietnam 6 out of 7 people infected have died, and in Thailand 3 boys have become unwell and 2 have died. All of them had been in contact with poultry. Fortunately, for the moment, although the bird flu can infect a person, it cannot spread from person to person like normal human flu. But doctors are concerned that if a person infected with normal flu also acquires the avian flu the 2 viruses could recombine, or swap pieces of genetic material, to produce a virus with the destructive power of the avian flu, and the ability to spread from person to person. Scientists suspect that this sort of event has given rise to some of the severe flu pandemics that we have seen over the last 100 years, including the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 20 million people. To tackle the problem doctors this week brought a sample of the deadly bird flu strain to London from Vietnam in a bomb-proof container. They plan to produce a vaccine by combining some of the genetic material from the bird flu with normal human flu to produce a safe vaccine.

The Ultimate Flutter

Fancy laying a bet on a 6000 mile race? And we're not talking about horses or people or even cars, this race is being flown by a group of migrating albatrosses; (those massive sea birds that don't come in strawberry flavour according to Monty Python). Bookkeepers Ladbrokes are teaming up with the UK's Conservation Foundation to help raise money for conservation projects and generate public interest by betting on birds. 18 young albatrosses have been fitted with electronic tags and they will be tracked on their great journey from Tasmania to South Africa- punters can bet on a range of races between the birds, and they can track the progress of their bird via satellite. Albatrosses and many other great sea birds are becoming endangered because each year hundreds of thousands of them are killed accidentally by fishing boats in the southern ocean- birds are attracted to the long lines that the fishing boats throw out to catch fish with, and they get tangled up in them and die. So, help to save these threatened birds by placing your bets on the Ultimate Flutter.


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