Search engines: On the serendipity of science

IN THE summer of 1987, a team of marine biologists stumbled upon a remarkable object. They were exploring the deeper reaches of the Pacific Ocean in a deep-sea submersible called Alvin when they found the giant skeleton of a blue whale.

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)

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