Issue Date: December 14, 2009
Watering Down Science?
You might call Gerald H. Pollack “the Teflon professor.”
Pollack, a bioengineering professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, has been the subject of savage criticism for his heterodox theories about water—yet he continues to enjoy great success.
In the past decade, Pollack claims to have amassed experimental evidence that in addition to ice, liquid, and gas, water can form a fourth, gel-like or liquid-crystalline phase, as well as store charge—a property that would violate the law of electroneutrality in bulk fluids. Most water and electrochemists dismiss his results, saying they can be entirely explained by invoking basic water chemistry, and the presence of impurities.
These weighty judgments don’t seem to have deterred Pollack’s supporters, however. Pollack has published numerous papers on his theories in respected journals, including Physical Review E, and the ACS journals Langmuir and Journal of Physical Chemistry B. And this year, he received a $3.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s new Transformative Research Projects Program (T-R01).
Pollack acknowledges that his research is controversial. “It’s impossible to break new ground without arousing controversy,” he tells C&EN. But, he adds, “I’ve somehow managed to stay funded.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—its ubiquity and central importance in biology, chemistry, and physics, water has long been steeped in controversy. In the 1960s, researchers debated the existence of polywater, a polymerized form of liquid water with high boiling point and viscosity. Polywater was eventually debunked, only to be replaced by the concept of water memory in the 1980s. This idea that liquid water can sustain ordered structures for long periods of time is one of the key tenets of homeopathy, a scientifically suspect concept, in which water supposedly “remembers” features of a solute even after repeated dilutions that remove all solute molecules. Water memory has also been debunked in the pages of Nature (1988, 334, 287).
Until the early 2000s, most of Pollack’s publications centered on bioengineering topics such as the behavior of muscle proteins. But in 2001, he published the book “Cells, Gels, and the Engines of Life,” in which he dismantled the standard view of cells, including ion pumps and membrane channels. He posited instead that the water inside cells is a structured gel that plays a fundamental role in the organization and action of cellular structures.
Some reviewers took Pollack to task: University of Colorado, Boulder, biology professor Michael W. Klymkowsky criticized the book for an “overall style reminiscent of creationist writings” (Nat. Cell Bio. 2001, 3, E213). But some lauded the book’s fresh outlook. Harvard University bioengineering professor Donald Ingber described the book as a “nicely sculpted … polemic against complacency in the cell biology establishment” (Cell 2002, 109, 688).
In recent years, Pollack has moved outside the confines of the cell to the structure of water in general. In an annual faculty lecture at the University of Washington titled “Water, Energy, and Life: Fresh Views From the Water’s Edge,” which is also making rounds on YouTube, Pollack describes what he calls an “exclusion zone” where microspheres in a container of water pull away from the surface, while an organized water gel thousands of layers thick forms. Any energy, whether from sunlight or heat, puts energy into the system, helping to increase the phenomenon, he says.
But as Pollack treads further into the territory of chemists, criticisms of his ideas have become more pointed. A recent paper of his in Langmuir, titled “Can Water Store Charge?” made the argument that pure water, hooked up to electrodes, will form large pH gradients that persist long after the current is turned off (Langmuir 2009, 25, 542). A firestorm ensued.
David G. Whitten, editor-in-chief of Langmuir, says the paper readily passed through peer review. “The editing process was completely normal,” he says. But within just a few days of the paper’s publication online, Whitten says, he began receiving complaints from top scientists in Europe and the U.S.
Agustin J. Colussi, a professor at California Institute of Technology, and Horacio R. Corti, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, published a detailed rebuttal to the paper (Langmuir 2009, 25, 6587), which led to a response from Pollack, followed by a final response from Colussi and Corti. Colussi and Corti pointed out that even “pure” water contains ions, and that charges may migrate, but eventually relax back to equilibrium.
Colussi and Corti were not alone in their criticism of Pollack’s paper. Mitch André Garcia, who writes for chemistry-blog.com, also examined the paper in detail. “Claiming macrostructures of water that extend past the picosecond domain is absurd,” he wrote on his website.
“This is the ‘cold fusion’ of physical chemistry,” says Michael Grunze of the Pollack work. Grunze is chair of the applied physical chemistry department at the University of Heidelberg, in Germany, who studies water structure. “It is impossible to get ion-free water. Even parts-per-million traces of CO2 will cause ionic conductance.”
Such criticism might be career-damaging for some, but not so for Pollack. He is part of the first group of awardees for NIH’s T-R01 program, which aims to fund inherently risky, but potentially paradigm-shifting research (see page 29). Over five years, Pollack will get $3.8 million to pursue the “unexpectedly profound role of water” in biology and medicine. “Next to hydrophilic surfaces, water acquires special properties: It is charged, more ordered, and it excludes solutes. This interfacial zone is more extensive than previously thought, and it expands in the presence of radiant energy, particularly at infrared wavelengths,” his proposal states.
Elizabeth L. Wilder, deputy director of NIH’s Division of Strategic Coordination, explains that the review process for the T-R01 grants “purposefully did not bring in people who were very close scientifically to each application,” she says. “The goal is to fund research that could break scientific dogma,” she tells C&EN, and including experts on the review panel “could be counterproductive.”
Pollack plans to use the windfall to buy state-of-the-art equipment and hire more staff. “It’s an honor, really,” he says. “It opens up doors to doing things we couldn’t do before.”
Perhaps the new funds will help Pollack address one of the criticisms raised by the field, namely the scale of his experiments. Pavel Jungwirth, chemistry professor at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague, an expert in solvation modeling, explains that the primary problem with Pollack’s research is that it employs macroscopic experiments to draw conclusions about water structure. Instead, microscopic tools such as spectroscopy and molecular simulations “are the proper tools for investigating the molecular structure of water,” he tells C&EN.
Criticism aside, Pollack chaired the fourth annual Conference on the Biology, Chemistry & Physics of Water, held in West Dover, Vt., in October. Speakers came from a range of backgrounds, “some conventional, some out on the edge,” Pollack says. For example, Phillip Snyder, a postdoc in Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor George M. Whitesides’ lab, spoke about the importance of understanding water’s role in protein-ligand interactions, while Yolène Thomas, a longtime proponent of homeopathy with the Institut Andre Lwoff, in France, spoke on nonchemical communication between cells. “The mixture led to an atmosphere that was really exciting,” Pollack says.
Pollack says he has no vested interest in whether homeopathy is valid or not. “But is it possible that some information can be contained in clusters of water?” he asks. “I think the evidence is that it’s quite possible.”
David Chandler, a chemistry professor at UC Berkeley and an expert in statistical mechanics, muses, “It’s a strange thing about the science of water. It attracts some people with unusual ideas.”
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