Innovation on the Tip of Your Tongue: Sweet SerendipityBy
Lucky breaks are often behind some of the surprises in science that lead to successful innovation. This is especially true when chemical compounds are being studied. The stories of how new beneficial uses are discovered sometimes seem like pure luck. Take the discovery of sucralose, for example. This potent artificial sweetener, now used in hundreds of products, owes its market success to a potentially dangerous misunderstanding. As the Wikipedia article on sucralose reports:
Sucralose was discovered in 1976 by scientists from Tate & Lyle, working with researchers Leslie Hough and Shashikant Phadnis at Queen Elizabeth College (now part of King’s College London). On a late-summer day, Phadnis was told to test the powder. Phadnis thought that Hough asked him to taste it, so he did. He found the compound to be exceptionally sweet, as sucralose is 600 times as sweet as sucrose.
One scientist said “test” but the other heard “taste.” That’s the kind of communication gap that can get you killed quickly in a chemical lab, but the taster survived and recognized a powerful artificial sweetener was at hand.
The story is a reminder that there may be unexpected beneficial applications of many materials around us, and that it’s good to always be wondering about overlooked properties and applications that could open new product opportunities. With a little luck, sometimes innovation is as close as the tip of our tongue–but don’t go around tasting unknown chemicals.