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These Compounds are Crystal Clear


Left to right, micrographs of Acetaminophen, Ascorbic Acid and Penicillin. Photo by Thomas Deerinck/UC San Diego

He is, perhaps, better known for his eye-popping micrographs of life and human biology, from nerve cells in the brains of rats to human cancer cells to synthetic bacteria, all catalogued at the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at UC San Diego.

But Thomas Deerinck’s eye has also sometimes focused on man-made “natural” creations, such as the compounds that help keep life alive and well. Here are three, each a thing of crystalline beauty:

Penicillin: A polarized light micrograph of crystals of penicillin, the first antibiotic isolated from mold by Alexander Fleming in 1940. Most penicillin now is synthetic. It remains a broad-spectrum antibiotic treatment for many bacterial infections, including pneumonia, tonsillitis, syphilis and meningococcal meningitis.

Ascorbic acid: Otherwise known as vitamin C, ascorbic acid is a nutrient used by the body to form blood vessels, cartilage, muscle and collagen in bones. It’s also vital to the healing process, and acts as an antioxidant to help protect cells against the effects of free radicals — molecules produced when your body breaks down food or is exposed to tobacco smoke and radiation from the sun, X-rays or other sources. Most people get enough vitamin C from a healthy diet, though it can be taken as a supplement for deficiencies. Vitamin C was discovered in 1912, isolated in 1928 and in 1933 became the first vitamin to be chemically produced.

Acetaminophen: Also known as paracetamol, it is the active ingredient in over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and Panadol, used to treat fever and mild to moderate pain, though other compounds like ibuprofen can be demonstrably more effective. In the short term, acetaminophen is safe and effective as directed, but chronic, high-dose consumption can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding and liver damage. Paracetamol was first made in 1877, possibly earlier.