Bugs, They Even Crawl into Chemistry – RIP Thomas Eisner

Bugs. I detest them. Mosquitos invest time and energy stalking me by smelling me out. Ants marshall out the troops leave a scented path through the jungles of grass blades to reach the dizzying heights of a mountain of cake on a picnic blanket. And I cannot forget nor forgive the stink bug that squirted a foul smelling liquid after encouragement on my part for them to move on from my shoulder.

The use of chemicals by the insect world was exposed by Thomas Eisner, (June 25, 1929 – March 25, 2011), after a beetle squirted him with a stinky brown liquid. This led to his famous discovery of the bombardier beetle’s defence mechanism as well as the beginnings of chemical ecology.

The bombardier beetle produces and stores two chemical reactants, hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide, in separate reservoirs in the rear of its abdomen. If threatened, the beetle contracts its abdomen muscles to force the reactants through to a mixing chamber containing water and catalytic enzymes. The combination of all these components results in a violent exothermic chemical reaction and the temperature rises to 100oC, the boiling point of water. This foul smelling boiling mixture is fired out into the atmosphere where some of it becomes a gas at high velocity towards the source of agitation.

The bombardier beetle was hailed a “champion chemist” by Dr Eisner who did not hide his admiration of insects and their features.

Dr Eisner was also a nature photographer and he was also a videographer. His documentary Secret Weapons that took viewers into a world of insect chemical defence systems won the Grand Award at the New York Film Festival and was named Best Science Film by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Only a very small fraction of the world’s insects have been described and with habitats under threat, there is a real risk of them becoming extinct before they are discovered.

“The natural treasury of chemicals are disappearing faster than we can keep track, before we’ve even assessed the resources,” Dr Eisner once told NPR.

He believed that chemical prospecting, the search for potentially valuable chemicals in animals and plants, could lead to solutions in medicine and other fields and also lead to encouraging developing nations to preserve untouched tracts of land. In 1991, he helped broker a deal between Costa Rica and the pharmaceutical giant Merck in which the company agreed to pay royalties on any medications developed from Costa Rican plants and animals.

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