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The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”
—Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)

Last week we made public our last results on understanding biological systems: we discovered that some vertebrates (amphibians and fishes, together accounting for half the vertebrates on earth) DO produce chitin. Even more, the disruption of that chitin production results on deformities of fish embryos, a result forcing us to revaluate the impact of chitin synthesis inhibitors.

We discovered however something more. During the analysis of chitin we discovered a strange signal in the background noise, not corresponding to chitin. A further study revealed that the signal was produced by synthetic polymers (i.e. plastic) and in particular we confirmed the presence of polystyrene. The presence of these polymers in fishes is a consequence of the extraordinary ability of their mucosa to capture hydrophobic particles, a phenomenon very well known in humans. This raises to a complete new level the impact of microplastic in animals.

Serendipity is defined as: “the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for” and in science is basically “too keep the eyes open”. Some of the greatest scientific discovers are produced by unexpected results, and it is the role of the scientist to keep the mind and eyes open to them.

 

Huffington Post published a great article on our (unexpected) finding and its implications: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/23/plastic-ocean-pollution-fish-health_n_6923872.html

The full article can be found here: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(15)00090-1

 

(Photo: AP Photo/5gyres.org, Carolyn Box)

One Response to “Serendipity in Science: looking for chitin and finding plastic”

  1. Gabriella Pleasant

    Excuse me!

    I’m a part of the Sustainability Lab at the University of California Santa Cruz and I’m currently working on a project to aid in eliminating microplastics from the ocean. However! In order to print out the design of my machine I would need to introduce more plastic into the ocean, as the only 3D printing materials available to me are nonbiodegradable. I want to print my machines out of chitosan, but am unsure how to make it into what I need (I’m not a chemist).

    To get to the point, I was hoping I could purchase FLAM from you to use for the printing of my machines. Or, after reading this article, purchase chitosan from you if it’s already being implemented by a company that deals in 3D printing.

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