6 Accidental Discoveries You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

6 Accidental Discoveries You’ve Probably Never Heard Of


[♪ INTRO] Accidental discoveries are a common theme
in science. The most famous is probably the discovery
of penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic. It happened when Alexander Fleming noticed
that the bacteria he was growing in Petri dishes didn’t seem to grow near mold. Usually, we like to think of these findings
as fluke events. The reality, though, is that each discovery,
even if triggered by a silly mistake or poor lab practice, is actually the result of careful
observation. Someone had to make surprising connections
to explain what they were seeing. They didn’t necessarily find the answer
to whatever they were looking for, but they did find something, and in many cases something
much bigger. So, here are 6 of our favorite times that
scientists, totally by accident, but also because they were clever enough to piece it
all together, discovered some awesome things. First up, an entirely new way to think about
infection and sex drive. Yeah, we’re just jumping right in. About five years ago, Canadian biologist Shelley
Adamo was working on understanding whether crickets’ immune systems go haywire if the
insects are stressed out by things like predators. A student generously brought in their pet
bearded dragon to serve as a very realistic fear stimulus. But unbeknownst to everyone, the lizard was
carrying a deadly virus, at least deadly for crickets. So the insects were scared, but the real scare
was to come. Because a few weeks later, the crickets’
insides had turned blue, and all of them were dead. Now, the normal reaction to this might be
to just order some more insects, or find a slightly less dangerous predator, and re-do
the experiment. But not Shelley Adamo. She noticed that, before the crickets met
their untimely demise, they were more interested in sex than normal. Which is just weird, because the typical response
to an infection is to be sick, and not waste energy trying to procreate. Adamo was intrigued, and went on to document
how the virus seemed to be working. She saw that the virus increased its spread
by making the insects more interested in mating. That way, when the infected cricket’s antennae
touched its partner’s mouth, something that basically only happens during sex, the virus
could get passed along. In short, it’s a cricket STD. Or, as Adamo puts it, a parasitic aphrodisiac,
which could be a great band name. All this thanks to a bearded dragon that happened
to be infected with a special cricket virus, and a scientist who was in tune with the sexual
activity of her crickets. Next, a discovery based on a whole series
of happy accidents. Bob Ross would be proud. In the early 2000s, physician-scientist George
Liu was studying a certain kind of Streptococcus bacteria known as type B. It’s the version
behind pneumonia, blood infections, and meningitis. He wanted to figure out what made this kind
of Strep so dangerous to people. And to do that, he was specifically
studying a certain toxin that the bacteria uses to
punch holes into host cells. Liu was working with one strain
of bacteria with the toxin, which had a pigment that
turned it a deep, rusty red, and a mutant without it, which was
a sort of bland white-ish color. For a while, though,
Liu wasn’t making much progress. Instead, he was struggling just to keep the
bacteria alive, especially the mutant strain. And you can’t very well do experiments if
you don’t have stuff to work with! Thankfully, he soon figured out why,
by using his nose. By chance, he smelled some residual bleach
in the flasks he was using to grow the bacteria, which explained the mass cell death. Turns out that a labmate
had kindly done the dishes, but needed to be more vigilant
about rinsing the bleach away. Now, Liu’s tests could have easily ended
right there. Case closed. But he was also curious why the bleach seemed
more effective at killing the white mutant cells. He thought that maybe it was because they
didn’t have any toxin in them. And then came the second happy accident. Around this same time, Liu’s mom reminded him
to eat his colorful veggies, as many moms do. But that actually gave him a new idea. The mutant cells couldn’t produce any toxins, but they also couldn’t produce that reddish pigment. So what if the toxin had nothing to do with
it? What if the pigment was
protecting the bacteria instead? See, part of the reason colorful
vegetables are so good for you is because they’re chock full of antioxidants,
molecules that protect cells from damage. And those very molecules also
give the foods their color. So maybe the pigment in the regular cells
was protecting them from the bleach. But it wasn’t clear why that would happen, either. Eventually, all the pieces fell
into place when Liu noticed that the bleach used to clean the flasks
contained the ingredient hypochlorite. This is just the technical name
for one type of bleach, but Liu was used to seeing it
in scientific papers. He knew that, in your body, special
white blood cells engulf bacteria and then wipe them out by
flooding them with hypochlorite. After that, Liu went on to show that during
an infection, strep uses its pigment, which is a carotenoid, similar to what’s in
carrots and tomatoes, as a kind of shield. This makes it harder for immune cells
to destroy the bacteria. And because the mutant Strep
didn’t have any pigment, they weren’t protected from
the hypochlorite bleach. So by making the most
of three chance encounters, Liu revealed a totally new reason
why strep infections are so deadly. And his mom probably earned some bragging
rights, too. Number 3: another serendipitous
discovery in insects. 15 or so years ago, budding evolutionary biologist Liz Tibbetts was investigating the complex
social structures of certain paper wasps. These are social wasps that make
nests out of chewed up wood. To draw conclusions about how the wasps interact,
researchers in this line of work dot the backs of the insects with
different colors of model airplane paint. With these labels, scientists can then
put the whole colony together, turn on a video camera, and track
each insect as they go about their lives. One day, Tibbetts was reviewing
a movie and realized she’d messed up: She had missed painting
the backs of two of the wasps. And at first, she was kinda bummed, since she
figured she’d have to scrap the video and start all over. But as she looked closer
at the two paint-free wasps, she saw that each one had
distinct markings on their faces. She could actually tell which one was which! And if she could do that, well, maybe the
wasps could, too. Nobody thought insects could tell
each other apart, least of all visually. But once Tibbetts had the insight to ask whether
it was there for a reason, she started checking out more wasp faces
and found a remarkable amount of diversity. Some wasps had bright yellow eyebrows, while
others had unique spots or other stripes and shapes. To find out whether all those markings meant
anything to the insects, she went ahead and gave some of them a makeover, painting on different features with a toothpick. And when she re-introduced the
dolled up ones to the rest of the colony, fellow wasps lashed out and attacked them,
no longer seeing them as friends. This showed not only that wasps
were capable of recognizing faces, but also that the skill was an
important part of the social glue that holds the colony together
and helps it function. OK, so you’ve probably heard
at least a little about CRISPR-Cas9, the genome-editing tool scientists have
been going gaga over in recent years. And we’ve definitely talked about it more
than once here on SciShow. It’s basically a set of molecular scissors
that we can precisely target to anywhere in DNA. The system was originally found in bacteria
as a way they fight off viruses. But scientists are learning how to use it
to modify DNA sequences in other organisms. Including, potentially, us. The Cas9 is the scissors part, it’s the
protein that does the cutting. The thing is, though, it pretty much only cuts DNA, so it doesn’t work very well on RNA, the intermediate molecule your body makes
before creating proteins. And that’s kind of a bummer, because scientists
would love to also be able to edit RNA. If they could do it, they might be able to
treat specific RNA-based diseases, like a type of dementia, or fix things without
touching the underlying DNA sequence. Well, the good news is, scientists might have
just found a breakthrough. This year, a group of biological chemists
at the University of Michigan uncovered a new Cas9 protein that acts
on RNA, and it was totally unintentional. They were working in their usual model system,
a specific bacteria that causes meningitis, and were testing for the basic cutting ability
of the protein. For a control group, they had incubated the
protein with RNA. The whole point was that it wasn’t supposed
to touch the RNA, while it would cut the DNA. But time after time, the RNA was
being sliced and diced as well. Eventually, the team realized what was happening, and that they had a dual DNA
and RNA cutter on their hands. And other research teams are also beginning
to report they’ve found similar things, although whether those were also
happy accidents remains to be seen. This next fortuitous discovery is an oldie but a
goodie: the invention of the implantable pacemaker. In 1956, electrical engineer Wilson Greatbatch
was trying to build a machine that could record heart rhythms. But in the course of putting the thing together,
he put in the wrong transistor. Transistors are circuitry components that can turn the flow of electrons
on or off, like a switch. Greatbatch accidentally grabbed one
that was too powerful for what he needed, and it made the device pulse
about once every second. And he was stunned. He recognized that the rhythm was the same
as a heartbeat, and that the electric pulse could probably be
used to snap unruly hearts back into step. Greatbatch then got to work
trying to miniaturize his device so it could fit inside a human body. Two years later, he had a
prototype working in a dog, and then the first human patient got one in 1960. Thanks to that chance discovery, they’ve
been changing lives ever since. And finally, a lab error that led to a more
Earth-friendly plastic. A few years ago, IBM chemist Jeannette Garcia
was trying to make a new plastic from three starter ingredients. She was a little impatient and started
heating two of the substances together while she went over to the scale
to measure out the third. And when she returned, she found a white pellet
attached to her flask. She struggled to get it out, so much so that
she had to use a hammer to shatter the glass. Although weirdly, the new plastic wasn’t
hurt by the hammer. Now, Garcia could have tossed everything out. The intended experiment was a failure, and
she had ruined some glassware. She could’ve just chalked it up to her impatience
and moved on. But instead, she was intrigued by the unusual
strength of this new material. And additional experiments revealed the plastic
to be not only super-strong, but also recyclable. Which, in the world of plastics, is actually
kind of a big thing. Part of the deal with high-strength plastics,
otherwise known as thermosets, is that once they’re made and molded
into a shape, they’re like that forever. You can’t melt them down to re-use them,
which means you can’t recycle them. But Garcia found that if she dunked the new
plastic in sulfuric acid, it could be re-used. And the same research group found that a second
plastic with the same type of chemistry can also self-heal, re-forming bonds if it’s cut. So, so much for mise en place, I guess. Garcia’s lack of preparation
turned out to be a boon, and opened up a whole new world
of recyclable plastics. In each of these accidental discoveries,
there was an element of chance. If Garcia hadn’t combined
those two ingredients just so, or Greatbatch hadn’t pulled out the wrong
transistor, nothing would have come of it. And we wouldn’t be talking about them today. But what really ties them together is an openness
to think about what’s right in front of them, to recognize something as
being different, and interesting, and potentially important,
and to ask questions about it. So, all you accidental discoverers-to-be out
there, even when you make a mistake, stay curious. And see where it takes you! Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
and special thanks to our patrons on Patreon. You guys rock! If you’d like to help us keep
exploring discoveries like these, you can go to patreon.com/scishow. [♪ OUTRO]

100 Replies to “6 Accidental Discoveries You’ve Probably Never Heard Of”

  1. My grandma had a pacemaker she passed away in March.. A blood clot hit her heart. Her pacemaker couldn’t save her.. I miss her so much!…

  2. You can’t just say the lizard had a virus I need to know more dude how did it get the virus and is the lizard immune to it ? Can it die earlier vs it not having the virus and what is the name of the cricket std called I need Scientific names

  3. Not gonna lie. I was kind of bummed when I realized that by "wasps can recognize faces," you meant other wasp faces and not human faces.

  4. 4:12 is that the reason when you have a chest infection the mucus you cough up has a horrible chlorine-ish/chemical taste and smell to it?

  5. I thought that wasps could recognize Human faces, I was super scared since I thought that the wasps might remember you and attack you.

  6. Ok so the wasps were abducted by aliens, returned as altered freaks, and therefore killed by their peers. Imagine that life the human world.

  7. The reason the Wasps attacked the painted face wasps was likely because of the smell of the paint as wasps are extremely sensitive to smells and scents which are chemically based, much like ants and bees.

  8. Imagine if they were very patient, very clean freaks and very neat people, huge life changing mistakes wouldn't happen

  9. The Wasps: Well, DUH. They’re animals, just like us. The concept of recognizing faces probably did not evolve for primates or even mammals. It probably started much earlier with a much more abundant life form: insects. It continues to sadden me how utterly meaningless, unsophisticated, and inconsequential people think insects are.

  10. Tippets gave some of the wasps a makeover painting on different features with a toothpick and when she reintroduced the doled up ones to the colony, Friends and Family lashed out and attacked them. This put the painted wasps into a deep depression.

  11. "Even when you make a mistake, stay curious."

    When I don't get the expected results in college lab, the lab assistants will usually just tell me I must've messed something up, even if I ask what could've caused things to turn out differently. It seems schools don't exactly foster that type of curiosity. Kudos to the scientists who didn't retain that lesson not to be curious.

  12. I kinda feel bad for the wasps that got the makeovers because they’d come home expecting a joyous reunion and instead they’d be attacked by their family and friends instead. ‘Tis betrayal of the highest degree.

  13. I knew some people in grad school that discovered a new type of nano particles by leaving their glass ware uncovered over the weekend instead of washing it after their experiment. They noticed a color change and decided to check out what had happened and voila. So the combination of laziness and curiosity got them a publication.

  14. Just think of all the inventions and discoveries lost to people who don't look further into what's viewed as a mistake.

  15. You are talking too fast. It is hard to grab some of the concepts. It doesn't help to read the flashing text either. It is rather distracting. Instead use graphics for more thorough explanations.

  16. The history of penicillin is amazing and worth a movie.
    When they developed the process to harvest it, it was very inefficient so they searched for a better fungus that at least produces more of the wanted stuff. They worked together with the air force to collect random mould samples from all over the world – and found the best strain in a bin right outside of the institute.
    That's Spielberg material.

  17. I feel bad about the painted wasps. Poor wasp would be like:
    -Hey, bros, I'm back! You won't believe what happened to me! Some crazy lady…
    -What the… Who is this dude?
    -What is wrong with you, guys? It is me!
    -I don't know this dude, do you know him?
    -Nope. Let's kill him.
    -Wait! It is me, Waspington!
    -Trying to fool us, Waspington has only one dot, you have two! DIE, IMPOSTER!
    -NOOOOOO!
    Gets killed.

  18. Have you heard of the Golden Rod worm that know how to grab it's hair from it's tail and head ,and then coil up into a spring until the hairs snap loose and the worm goes blasting off better than a flea?,,,,, it's called leaping larvae.

  19. Either you suck at explaining it OR forgot to mention it, but you didn’t say what exactly the END RESULT WAS? What was the benefit of the discovery???

  20. Self healing plastic? I smell immortality just around the corner. Except for that pesky sun slowly dying out issue.

  21. 0:19 Funny, I always thought that Fleming's time was more in the 1800s than modern. Did anyone else think the same?

  22. While penicillin was discovered im 1928 they couldn't figure out how to mass produce and use it until the 1940's. The sulfonamide broad spectrum antibiotic was the first to be mass produced and used, especially in WW2. Watch any legit WW2 movie and the corpsmen are always calling out the use of sulfa on those wounded in the field. Re: Band of Brothers and more.

  23. We put makeup on wasps and send them back to their colony to suffer a terrible death by their own hive and at the same time think that aliens will treat us with respect.

  24. Thanks! As Louis Pasteur himself said, "In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind." You have to be willing to look deeply into mistakes, accidents, or other unexpected occurrences, and try to see why they happened the way they did. It's no good just scrapping the whole thing and starting over; that's the one sure way to learn nothing. There should be a science of accidents. We need to study why things happen the way they do. Not on some chemical or molecular level – no. We need to understand why we as humans make certain types of mistakes more often than others, and learn what that can teach us about both human behavior and the kinds of 'oops!' moments that can actually be useful. A science of serendipity. I have no doubt that this would also help us avoid procedural mistakes that may lead to anything from oops! to disaster. 𝓡𝓲𝓴𝓴𝓲 𝓣𝓲𝓴𝓴𝓲.

  25. Just imagine what the wasp went through!! How would you feel when some one kidnaps you…. does plastic surgery on you and throws you back into your family just to see you getting eaten alive! Effed up ay? Ya! But you only think of your self! 😂

  26. The old story of Nylon says that it, too, was a goof. One researcher devloped what could be described as "slime", and had intended to dispose of it. Another researcher took the substance, played around with it, and came up with what is now called nylon, altough one 'suggested' name was "DuPAROOTH", for "DuPont Pulls A Rabbit Out Of The Hat"! (No independent verification for this has been found!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *