Torpedoing the fun

This is a trailer for The Master, an awesome movie about a WWII sailor who returns home to found a new religion inspired by the story of Scientology, but I wanted to mention something neat that you might not have noticed,

The torpedo that Freddie Quell was depicted drinking from looks an awful lot like a Mark 14 torpedo, which would have meant that the fuel he would have been drinking was methanol.

Methanol is chemically very similar to ethanol only it gets you about a tenth as drunk, and it breaks down very differently. Most people produce an alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme in our livers designed to break down ethanol into acetaldehyde which then gets processed and excreted by your metabolism in a very water dependent manner (where hangovers come from). It is a system that works pretty great for addressing ethanol toxicity, so long as you arn’t to dedicated to it, but the problem with methanol is that the system works pretty great on it to, only it makes a very different product with the same reaction, formaldehyde. Acute formaldehyde toxicity literally plasticizes you, by binding your macromolecules together into ever increasingly impossible to break apart single massive molecules. This is why formaldehyde makes such a fantastic preservative. Eyes and gonads are the most sensitive to this, and so go first, which is where the trope of blind mountain men who accidentally make methanol with their moonshine comes from.

If you think that is terrifying, the chronic toxicity is something else entirely. Aldehydes are inherently pretty reactive with biological molecules and bind to them pretty easily, what makes formaldehyde do what it does is that it is a double aldehyde on the same carbon, which means that when it reacts to something, it forms a reactive aldehyde wherever it lands. Thus, it will take one biological molecule and covalently bond it to another in a process known as cross-linking, and it does this best with nitrogenous compounds like proteins and DNA. The big problem is that if you end up with proteins irreversibly bound to DNA in one of your cells, that will seriously fuck up mitosis, here are some awesome helpful videos, in a very specific way. A chromosome with a formaldehyde induced lesion will likely fail to replicate and stop the replication complex in its tracks, but not stop the overall mitosis process. This means that one of the two daughter cells will get no copies of the affected chromosome while the other daughter gets somewhere between one and two copies. This can be a massive problem.

In almost all cancers, if you take one of the cancer cells and break it apart to produce a karyotype, you will find a bizarre assortment of missing and extra chromosomes. There are proto-oncogenes, or genes that have the potential to cause uncontrolled growth (cancer), in all of us if they become misregulated, say from being copied a few times. There are also tumor suppressor genes that cause programed cell death in the event of uncontrolled growth that can fail, when say they are missing because the chromosome they were on is gone. Formaldehyde is profoundly efficient at causing this specific defect in mitosis, so we are incredibly sensitive to even the smallest amounts of it, especially over time, and again, your liver makes [methanol = formaldehyde] mole for mole.

Getting you drunk a tenth as fast, someone drinking from a torpedo in that way would die really easily as they drank way past the half a wine glass it takes to acutely kill you.

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