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Catalytic Earthworms, Packable Posters

by Jyllian Kemsley
October 6, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 40


Credit: Alan & Linda Detrick/ Science Source
Catalyst: Couples aldehydes to ketones
Redworms (Eisenia foetida), commonly used in kitchen compost piles.
Credit: Alan & Linda Detrick/ Science Source
Catalyst: Couples aldehydes to ketones

Can’t get your asymmetric aldol reaction to run? Or a three-component aza-Diels-Alder? Try adding dried earthworm extract.

All organisms use enzymes for biosynthesis. Some synthetic chemists try to capitalize on those biomolecules in various ways—by isolating and using individual enzymes, engineering microorganisms, or using crude biological extracts such as from mushrooms and horse livers.

A team led by Yan-Hong He at China’s Southwest University has now added earthworms to the mix (PLOS One 2014, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0105284). Earthworms have long been used medicinally in Asian countries, He and colleagues note, for applications including childbirth induction, fever reduction, asthma treatment, and hair growth.

The researchers initially started using an earthworm extract called lumbrukinase that’s used medicinally in China, He tells Newscripts. They tried it for catalyzing aldol reactions and got moderate yields with moderate selectivity. Encouraged by the results, they decided to try making their own worm extract.

Working with Eisenia fetida—common earthworms also known as red worms, red wigglers, and brandling worms—He and colleagues rinsed the worms, homogenized them, and centrifuged the homogenate. They then collected the aqueous supernatant, concentrated it by dialysis, and dried and ground the resulting material into a gray powder.

The researchers tested the powder as a catalytic agent for a number of different reactions. They found it would catalyze asymmetric direct aldol and Mannich reactions with moderate to good enantioselectivity. The powder also catalyzed several other reactions, including those used in the synthesis of isoquinuclidines and coumarins.

Should He and coworkers present their results as a poster, they might want to try out this newfangled technology: Print the poster on fabric.

Credit: Meagan Elinski/Texas A&M
Packable: Ditch the poster tube.
James Batteaus demonstrates that a fabric poster can serve as a blanket.
Credit: Meagan Elinski/Texas A&M
Packable: Ditch the poster tube.

Back when Newscripts gang members were scientific whippersnappers, overhead projectors populated lecture halls, and posters were printed on regular letter paper and then mounted on construction paper for some color. Printing a poster on a single giant sheet was a novelty that has now become common. But the whole poster does have its downsides, especially if you’re traveling and don’t want to lug around a poster tube as an extra bag.

Fabric posters are the latest solution. Both university print shops and specialty printers offer them. Fabrics vary from a heavy canvas to a light polyester, such as that used by Spoonflower or Mega­Print. You can just fold your poster and pack it with your clothing.

James D. Batteas of Texas A&M University switched from paper to fabric about five years ago. Fabric is more expensive he says, but “in terms of travel, it is just so much easier to pack.” The resolution might not be as sharp as a poster printed on glossy paper, he says, but it’s a small difference.

As with clothing, hanging up the poster for a bit can take care of most folding-induced creases. Jay Buckley, owner of MegaPrint and son of a chemist, recommends wrapping the poster around cardboard so there are no sharp folds. If necessary, posters can be ironed—but be sure to turn off the steam lest the ink run!

Jyllian Kemsley wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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