16. Sulfur: No Mistakes, Only Happy Accidents

From Vulcan to vultures, today’s element brings stories of unintended consequences.

Featured above: A painting of Charles Goodyear discovering the vulcanization process.

Show Notes

Bacterial Birth Control: So why is prontosil so effective in humans (and mice) if it did absolutely nothing in the petri dish? There are two main reasons: It needs to be biologically processed into something else, and it doesn’t actually kill bacteria.

Prontosil is actually a precursor to the drug that works its magic, sulfonamide. Mammalian cells crack prontosil in half to produce sulfonamide, so it wasn’t actually present in the petri dish.

As far as its mechanism of action, sulfonamide merely inhibits bacterial growth — but this is enough. Slowing down or stopping bacterial reproduction means the immune system can attack the bacteria naturally without becoming overwhelmed.

Some doctors are looking toward this class of drugs again as traditional antibiotic resistance becomes more of a problem.

Fun with Fricatives: You may be more familiar seeing element 16 spelled with a ph, as in “sulphur.” That’s just as correct as “sulfur!” The same situation is going on here as happened with aluminium: The IUPAC recommends a particular spelling, in this case the one with the F, but — even though “sulphur” is the common spelling in the UK — does not see that as an acceptable variant.

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Sources

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  10. NPR, The Saga Of A Sulfa Drug Pioneer. Scott Simon, December 23, 2006.
  11. Science History Institute, Gerhard Domagk. December 4, 2017.
  12. Sulfanilamide (And Its Relatives), Simon Cotton, Uppingham School, Rutland, UK.
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  14. In The Pipeline, Things I Won’t Work With: Thioacetone. Derek Lowe, June 11, 2009.
  15. ThoughtCo., 10 Molecules You Don’t Want To Mess With. Anne Marie Helmenstine, June 4, 2017.
  16. io9, This Is The World’s Smelliest Chemical. Esther Ingliss-Arkell, May 19, 2015.
  17. SafeGas.org.
  18. Popular Science, Gas Leaks Are Designed To Attract Turkey Vultures. Kelsey D. Atherton, January 25, 2016.
  19. PeriodicTable.com, Sulfur. Theodore Gray.

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