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Chemical Eye on Superheroes vs. Superbugs
by Preston MacDougall


August 25, 2005

Disbelief. Anger. Derision. But ultimately pity.

These were my reactions to the news of a human tragedy unfolding in the Muslim world. You would think that replacing fear of death, with life and liberty, would garner a hero's welcome. But no, some imams are preaching falsehoods, vilifying true heroes, and endangering the lives of countless children.

jpg penamecillin

A computer simulation of a molecule of penamecillin.
(P. J. MacDougall and C. E. Henze)

I am not referring to the situation in Iraq. It is news from Indonesia that disturbs me, and it is not tsunami-related either. The U.N. has reported that the polio virus, a distant nightmare of the elderly in Western countries, is hacking its way into unprotected children.

Thanks to heroic efforts of people like Jonas Salk, polio vaccination had all but eradicated this microscopic terror, from nearly all corners of the globe. Unfortunately, beginning in northern Nigeria in 2003, a new strain of the virus has now spread to 16 countries. It is predominantly Muslim-ruled countries or regions that are being hit, the latest being Indonesia.

Prior to the hundreds of new cases, Indonesia, which has long been a producer of polio vaccine for the region, reported its last case of childhood polio in 1985. But that was before some Muslim leaders, for reasons that I cannot fathom, began spreading the big lie that the vaccine was created to spread AIDS among Moslems and sterilize Muslim girls. I haven't yet seen Dr. Salk burned in effigy, but it wouldn't surprise me. On a map, the virus seems to be following in the wake of the lies.

Fortunately, current vaccines are still an effective defense against the virus. Now if only there were a vaccination for ignorance that was as easy to administer.

Another dangerous example of fool's logic is "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." For much, much longer than humans have been contracting syphilis or spreading tuberculosis (both bacterial infections), viral particles and bacterial cells have been engaging each other in mortal combat on molecular battlefields.

And since the polio virus attacks our cells that control muscle movement, and in advanced stages of AIDS, the virus, H.I.V., can attack many types of cells in our bodies, it would be a stretch to call these little buggers our friends.

In fact, a growing concern in the medical community are so-called superbugs - infectious bacteria that are resistant to the most potent antibiotics that medicinal chemists can cook up. Still, there are superheroes to be found in these endeavors too.

Rubberman foiled many ubervillains with his plastic limbs and torso. Whereas the lesser-known Waksman achieved hero status in the battle against superbugs not by wielding paraffin, but plain old dirt. He might also be known by the alias Streptoman, since Selman Waksman won the 1952 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, in recognition of his discovery of a potent class of antibiotics that are found in common soil.

Dr. Selman and his students isolated numerous antimicrobial agents produced by literally garden-variety microbes belonging to the actinomycete clan. Chief among them was streptomycin, the first effective drug for tuberculosis. Recently, as part of the American Chemical Society's program of establishing National Historical Chemical Landmarks, a plaque honoring this and other achievements was placed in Martin Hall, on the Cook College Campus of Rutgers University, in New Jersey.

It is interesting to note that when he accepted his prize, he began his Nobel Lecture (which is available at, with the following proverbial passage from the Book of Sirach, or Liber Ecclesiasticus as it is known in Latin (Chapter 38, verse 4):
"The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them."

For a whole host of reasons, from over-prescription to bacterial evolution, yesterday's wonder drugs are no match for today's superbugs. Hopefully though, a new army of heroes, with the molecular skills needed to cleanly win battles against microbial terror, are being nurtured and trained in well-equipped chemistry and biology laboratories, both here and abroad. I also hope that they take to heart the foremost lesson for superheroes: "With great power comes great responsibility."

Education is not just the vaccine for ignorance, it is the key to living healthy, wealthy, and wise.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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