All Gummed Up
In The Store
I was there when it all started. Bair’s drug and hardware store, typical small store, kids hanging round buying candy, drinking sodas, listening to music. Bobby’s uncle owned it but Bobby usually helped out behind the counter instead of sitting in front with the rest of us. This guy came in, wanted a soda, then asked Bobby’s uncle, if he had this particular chemical. But it was Bobby who answered, asking him what strength and telling him he would have to fill in the register.
A Sticky Problem
“Smart kid,” the guy remarked to no one in particular. But he was right. Bobby was always top of the class in science. Seems like the guy was moving into town and he took a shine to Bobby, had him over at the big old Cookson house he was renting and got him to help with some experiments he was doing.
Bobby explained them to me one time but apart from him saying he was working in a proper lab, I didn’t understand the rest of it. Later, he got very secretive and wouldn’t even mention the lab any more but he must still have been working there because his uncle took on someone else to help out in the store.
Must have been a year later and the science teacher wanted a group of us to do a science fair project. She had a few ideas for us to look at but told us to have a think for ourselves about what we wanted to do. I wanted to do an engineering project and make a robot car that could travel over rough ground but Bobby suggested we look for a bacterium that could clean the environment but be harmless to humans. The rest of the guys agreed, probably because they knew Bobby would do most of the work while they still got credit! I thought he was going to look for a bacterium that would digest oil but apparently that has already been done, so we settled on one that would get rid of gum. The street in front of Bair’s drug and hardware was covered in gum and Mr Bair was always trying to get rid of it.
Ended up one Saturday, the whole science fair group of us spent all morning on our knees scraping gum from the pavement. Bobby said the best way to find the bacterium was to search in a place where there was lot of the stuff you want to get rid of. That’s how they found the oil digesting bacterium, apparently. Anyway, we had a lot of gum and a lot of dirty knees but now we had to look for this tiny creature that might actually be digesting gum.
Bobby thought the school science lab wasn’t good enough for us to look for this bacterium and he got us invited over to the old Cookson house to see this guy and use the lab there. Mr Smith, that was the guy’s name, let us in. He didn’t seem too happy to have us there but we behaved ourselves and he gradually relaxed. Bobby directed us, we just followed what he said to do, stroking solutions onto these Agar plates, making sure our equipment was sterile and making sure we didn’t inhale any bacteria left over from whoever spit the gum out!
A couple of days later, we were able to take these dishes across to school to show to our science teacher and tell her our plans.
Now, there are different types of gum and not all of them can be digested by bacteria, at least none that have been tested yet. But some of them can. And it didn’t seem too important an experiment if you could only remove some of the gum from the pavement with bacteria. But looking at this the other way round, gum is also very good at removing bacteria and holding onto them, after all, some gum claims to clean your teeth! And this gave Bobby an idea.
What if the gum held a bacterium that could fight viruses? Viruses and bacteria have been fighting for millions of years and bacteria can develop immunity to viruses they have encountered before. So Bobby thought we might be able to make this gum that had bacteria that could fight against viruses. You would need to make a different bacteria each time you wanted to fight a different virus but if you chewed this gum, your body would be able to fight against any virus you caught. It wouldn’t make you immune of course, just the bacteria would remove and kill enough of the viruses to give your body a chance to fight it without it overwhelming you.
The science teacher was very excited by this idea but the problem was, it needed a specialist lab to create the right bacteria and also, we couldn’t try it out on people, it would have to be on some other creature - but what creature would chew gum? And what virus would we have to get rid of? Bobby told her about Mr Smith and his lab and she went off to talk to him. Turned out he was Dr Smith and a geneticist but his lab could handle this. Seems he got pretty excited by the idea.
We decided to use frogs for our experimental animals. The school pond had had a number of frog deaths from something called ranavirus, so there was a real problem to solve. Bobby and Doctor Smith made the special bacteria to add to the chewing gum. The rest of our group made chewing gum flies for the frogs to “catch”. They wouldn’t chew them of course, frogs have no teeth, but that wasn’t essential as long as they got the chewing gum into their mouths.
Well, the rest is history, as they say. The frogs got the gum, the bacteria “got” the viruses and the frogs recovered. Bobby was named as co author in a special paper Dr Smith wrote for this learned journal and our science group got a special award at the science fair.
If I was in at the beginning, I was there at the end too. Bobby left town the following year to go to College on a special scholarship: I went to say goodbye at the bus stop by the old clock. He and Dr Smith patented the chewing gum and it gets given out on about 7 million prescriptions a year fighting all these different kinds of virus. As for me, I still live in town but I developed a machine for removing gum, so the pavement in front of Bair’s drug and hardware store is finally clean.