The Surprising Chemistry of Mummies, Ghosts, and Vampires – Spooking of Chemistry

The Surprising Chemistry of Mummies, Ghosts, and Vampires – Spooking of Chemistry

December 14, 2019 1 By William Hollis


Trick-or-treat time’s nearly here, so we
at Speaking of Chemistry have been studying up on some ghoulish characters.
Stick around to learn the chemistry of three creepy classics: mummies, ghosts, and vampires. Hey chemistry lovers! Judy here. First, let’s talk mummies. You might think they’re all carefully crafted by ancient Egyptians, but some bodies mummify
naturally. Adipocere mummies are fascinating examples. These waxy corpses hold their
shape for decades or even centuries– way longer than it takes most bodies to
decompose. This natural mummification usually occurs when a person’s final
resting place is warm, damp, and has a high pH, like a swamp. In these
conditions, bacteria from the corpse’s gut or from the surrounding environment use enzymes to convert liquid unsaturated
fats into solid saturated fats. The enzymes carry out a reaction called
hydrolysis by taking the hydrogen ions from water and adding them to the
unsaturated fat. Once the water from the body and from the tomb is all used up,
you’re left with adipocere: A substance pretty darn similar to soap. One
mummy at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is even known as the
Soap Lady. Mmm. Lavender Soap Lady soap. Next, did you know that ectoplasm isn’t a
concept invented by the classic 1984 film, Ghostbusters? Actually, Nobel laureate Charles Richet,
an early 20th century physiologist, coined the term. In Richet’s time, seances
were popular social events and mediums would show off their paranormal prowess
by oozing a white, ghostly substance from their mouths, nostrils, and ears.
Richet thought this ectoplasm might be a post-mortem version of cytoplasm, the
jiggly broth of proteins in our cells. Biologists of the day thought cytoplasm was the substance that passed on genetic traits. So, was Richet right? Sorry. This one’s more trick than
treat. We now know mediums used tricks like low lighting and hidden assistants
to fake oozing of ectoplasm, which was probably just cotton or chewed paper.
We’ve also figured out that the substance of life is not cytoplasm–it’s DNA. I wonder if Richet also invented Ecto Cooler… And, finally, vampires. There’s some speculation that some characteristics of
these fictional villains may have roots in a very real medical phenomenon: The extremely rare genetic disease called
congenital erythropoietic porphyria. It means the body can’t circulate enough
properly formed porphyrin molecules in the blood. Porphyrins help proteins carry oxygen to
the body’s tissues. CEP can cause extreme paleness, sensitivity to light, and anemia. A condition you might say could leave a person wanting blood. The disease may have been more common when high-profile families intermarried. This inadvertently narrowed the gene pool, especially in geographically isolated
areas like Transylvania. Another vampire-y symptom of CEP: In the skin, problematic porphyrin molecules react with sunlight, making exposure painful and sometimes
scarring– which is weird cuz I always thought the sun made vampires sparkle. Team Edward. Did we miss a monster? Are you a werewolf fan? Maybe Frankenstein? Tell us your favorite Halloween characters in the comments. Check out the links below to learn more
and see the spookiest stories C&EN has to offer. Hope you found this humerus. Thanks for
watching! You have seven days.