Search engines: On the serendipity of science
Simon Singh is an author, journalist and TV producer, specialising in science and Mathematics. His latest book is "Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial", co-authored with Edzard Ernst, the world’s first professor of complementary medicine.
Sunday 28 February 1999
Scientists had occasionally been able to examine whale corpses washed up on beaches, but this was the first time that anybody had seen one lying on the ocean floor.
The corpse fascinated Craig Smith of the University of Hawaii. It seemed to be a bizarre example of a self-contained ecosystem. A thriving community of bacteria had latched on to the dead whale, bacteria which seemed to survive on a diet of pure fat, a major component of a whale's body.
Smith wanted to carry out further research, but found it hard to find other whale corpses. Initially, he dragged dead beached whales out to sea and sank them to observe the action of the fat-digesting bacteria. But what he really wanted was to find and study naturally submerged corpses. To search the ocean floor for dead whales he had to hire the Alvin submersible again, and this required money.
Having filled in the grant application form, Smith sent it to the research panel that made the funding decisions. Finding the dead whale in the middle of the ocean had been unlikely, but equally serendipitous was the fact that one member of the research panel, biotechnologist Jeff Stein, realised that whale corpses might hold the key to developing environmentally friendly washing powders.
The biological washing powders available today already use bacterial enzymes to digest fat stains on dirty clothes. But Jeff Stein reasoned that the bacteria that feed on whales must be releasing some pretty powerful fat-digesting enzymes, enzymes that are particularly impressive because they seem to be able to funtion in conditions that would be intolerable for your average enzyme.
The enzymes in washing powders are only really effective at about 50C. In comparison, whale corpses drift in deep ocean water that can be as cold as 2C, yet the enzymes remain active. Stein proposed using the enzymes from whale bacteria to make a washing powder that works at room temperature, which would save energy.
Jeff Stein is already cultivating whale bacteria, harvesting enzymes and testing them to see which strain is best suited for the ordeal of the washing machine. He estimates that the worldwide market for the enzymes is worth about $100m, and hopes to have signed deals with the major detergent manufacturers by the end of the year. So within a couple of years you may well find whale-eating enzymes nibbling at your mucky T-shirts and filthy frocks.
Simon Singh is the author of `Fermat's Last Theorem' (Fourth Estate, pounds 6.99)
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nokia no more: Microsoft drops once-ubiquitous mobile name in favour of its Lumia brand
- 2 Renee Zellweger on plastic surgery reports: 'I'm living a fulfilling life and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows'
- 3 Banksy not arrested: Internet duped by fake report claiming artist's identity revealed
- 4 Australian café owner sparks debate after saying 'No' to having unruly children on premises
- 5 Couple die within 28 hours of each other after being married for 73 years
Goodfellas star Frank Sivero sues for $250m over Simpsons character
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - TV review: Sensitive, silly and sensational
MOBO awards 2014: Sam Smith sweeps the board to take four prizes
The Apprentice 2014, episode 3, review: Lord Sugar hacks away at the deadwood with another double elimination
Apprentice 2014: Contestant James Hill outed as convicted criminal
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991 with most Brits wanting to stay in'
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'