Friday, September 30, 2011

Mystery Microscopist

Many years ago, when I was a student, I was given this box of old prepared microscope slides. I can't remember who the donor was but they've been at the back of a cupboard for years and only emerged when I was having a clear-out, a couple of months ago.

They date from around the time of the First World War. Some were commecially prepared by the firm of Watson & Son, of 313, High Holborn, London - labelled with beautiful handwriting, in mounts that were so well ringed with shellac that they have remained in perfect condition for almost a century.

Others were prepared by the original owner, who I'm guessing must have been a chemist because many are cystalised mounts of chemical compounds, intended to be viewed with polarised light, made from substances that would only have been available to a professional chemist - possibly a plant biochemist because quite a number of the crystals are naturally-occuring plant compounds that he might have extracted and purified himself. One contains the only clue to the identity of the mystery microscopist, because he has written his name in chemical crystals on the slide - 'SID'.

Sid would have looked at these specimens with a rather primitive instrument called a Fox Polariscope - so Sid probably wouldn't have seen the images in quite the same vibrant colours that you can see here, achieved with a modern polarising microscope. The specimen above is strychnine...

... this is floridzin, an alkaloid from apple roots... is this one, too.

This is mercuric cyanide


Coumarin, the compound responsibe for the scent of new-mown hay...

Salicin, extracted from willow bark and the precursor of salicylic acid ,better known as aspirin...

... and ammonium bitartrate

Friday, September 23, 2011

Hooked on Hops

Hops Humulus lupulus have an impressive ability to climb supports - either up other plants or, in the case of cultivated hops, up poles in hop gardens. Charles Darwin devoted a lot of time to studying the way in which their shoot tips rotate as they grow (by the process of circumnutation), seeking out objects to coil around (you can read more about his experiments here). There's more to hops' climbing ability than circumnutation and rapid growth, however - their stems are clothed in very distinctive epidermal hairs (trichomes) that act as grappling hooks, securing their grip on supporting structures.

The hop trichomes that are adapted for climbing have a very distinctive anvil shape - you can see them here, at low magnification, on either side of a hop leaf petiole.

At higher magnification the anvil shape is very distinctive, something noted ....

.... by the botanist Anton Kerner von Marilaun in his Natural History of Plants (1895).

Hops have been cultivated for centuries, primarily for the resins produced by their epidermal glands, mainly at the base of the bracts in the female flowers but also on other parts of the plant, including the underside of the leaf. In the photograph above you can see the minute gold drops of resin on the lower surface of a hop leaf. The resins are converted to bitter isohumulones during the brewing process, adding a distinctive flavour to beer.