Sweet Serendipitous Science

One of the best arguments for supporting basic science is that serendipitous discoveries — those not necessarily outlined in a grant proposal — have always been key to scientific progress. Many of us who lobby for basic science like to use the wonderful example of penicillin, whose discovery was attributed to Alexander Fleming, who noticed that a substance from the mold Penecillium rubens inhibited the growth of staphylococcus bacteria. The ‘serendipity’ derives from the fact that for Fleming the mold growth was an unintended contamination of his bacterial plates — but of course this turned out to be far more important than the original experimental goals –whatever they were.

However, the era of serendipitous scientific discovery has not disappeared — although the continued dismal state of funding for basic science may eventually cause this to occur. But rather than dwell on these stark thoughts, I’d rather celebrate another recent serenditious discovery with high potential that has come to my attention.

As I opened my copy of “Newsweek” this weekend, I found myself reading an interesting article by Andrew P. Han (@HanAndrewP). This article discusses the serendipitous discovery of a relatively rare sugar known as allulose or d-Psicose — or more accurately, the finding by Japanese researcher Ken Izumori of an enzyme that can rearrange atoms to convert fructose into allulose. Almost every organic molecule has a mirror image molecule (known as “handedness” or chirality), and while their chemical composition is identical, and they have similar levels of ‘sweetness,’ allulose has one tenth of the calories of fructose and is largely excreted in our urine. While rare in nature, it exists in at least one plant, and during baking of foods with fructose small amounts of allulose are made.

The bottom line is that allulose shows tremendous potential for being a “sugar substitute” (substitute for glucose and fructose), which could replace these common sugars and perhaps do a lot less damage to western populations that have rampant levels of obesity and diabetes.

This is great news. Wonderful, in fact. But it’s necessary to point out that Dr. Ken Izumori, who spent decades studying rare sugars, explicitly notes in the article that he did so out of pure interest and curiosity in understanding the basic science of sugars. His goal was not to revolutionize the sugar industry or cure obesity-related diseases and diabetes, but rather to better understand the world in which we live. So, for those who aren’t getting it, it’s time to take note. Again and again. Major advances are likely to come by serendipitous findings by clever researchers who are driven by curiosity and the achievement of first-rate basic science. These advances will continue to come, until the well dries up. Then we will be left with all the scientists who can ‘translate’ these advances, but without anything to translate, science will sour.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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