Feb 16, 2012 - Desiree Perez
“Skunks; I’ll probably be remembered for skunks,” says Bill Wood with a droll smile.
Humboldt State’s whimsical professor of chemistry knows heaps about how animals and plants deploy chemicals for communication, defense and sex.
Bill’s toxic chemical research spans a lot more than skunks—everything from giraffes, weasels and black tailed deer to mushrooms, bats and ticks.
Giraffes, for example, make chemical compounds that kill or contain bacteria and fungi. Bull giraffes give off a stinky scent (stinky to humans) that lures female giraffes. The bull with the higher concentration is likeliest to find fulfillment.
So why does Bill Wood, whose expertise has made its way over a long career into The New York Times, PBS, NPR and the Royal Chemical Society, think he’ll be remembered for skunks instead of giraffes, bats and mushrooms?
He has a ready answer. “Because everybody knows skunks, everybody in the world, even people on other continents. Skunks are only a part of my whole research effort in chemical ecology, which is much broader, but everybody can relate to skunks. Everybody can picture one, even if they’ve never seen one in the flesh.”
There are other reasons why Bill believes his professional history will be summed up by the distinctive black creature with the famous white stripes and infamous scent. “People don’t remember me for giraffes because they don’t smell as bad as skunks,” he exclaims. “Although giraffes are pretty stinky, too. Their skin gland secretions have the same chemicals in them that feces do.”
And there is a very specific reason why Bill Wood is known for skunks on the Humboldt State campus. He conducted his research on road kill skunks in the Science A building. Skunks killed instantly don’t spray, and Bill worked on the carcasses under a fume hood. They aren’t smelly until the draining of the glands begins. To contain the stench—especially on weekends when the building’s ventilation system was off—the chemistry ecologist flung the carcass out the upper floor window and proceeded to dispose of it afterwards down below.
Just the same, come Monday morning, colleagues on the upper story greeted him with, “Why the devil can’t you work on roses?” The odor lingered despite his attempts to contain it.
Bill Wood’s skunk reputation stems as well from the classroom. He adores teaching and he uses a taxidermy skunk on permanent display in his office for show-and-tell in his lectures. Students react predictably, either with mock horror or with “it’s-so-cute” affection, while teasing him about his peculiar fondness for the critter.
“It was the last of my research skunks and it didn’t make it through the anesthesia. I consider it my Chemistry Trophy, my version of Trigger,” he proclaims proudly.
Trigger was the immaculate palomino that Hollywood cowboy Roy Rogers had stuffed for public display in the wake of his popular westerns broadcast by early post-war television.
Wood freely shares the recipe for neutralizing your pets if they get sprayed by a skunk. Mix one quart of three percent hydrogen peroxide, one-quarter cup of baking soda and a teaspoon of liquid detergent. Rinse the animal after five minutes and repeat if necessary. The treatment must be used right away; it won’t work if it’s stored for any length of time. And don’t store it in a closed container. The elixir gives off oxygen gas that could break it.
Bill moved on from skunks to study bats that had been trapped in the University Library; they too possess anti-microbial chemicals. He also researched the black tailed deer that are common in northern California. His investigation showed that the deer secrete natural chemicals that are highly active against acne bacteria and athlete’s foot fungi. He holds two long-time patents for them under University auspices, but it would cost millions to license them, he says, and so they are not viable commercially.
Wood has also worked on long-tailed weasels. “They have anal glands and they mark with a secretion containing sulfur. I think they smell worse than skunks do. It’s more repellent, but on the other hand, they don’t produce very much of it.”
Wood teaches general and organic chemistry. His research centers on chemical ecology, a discipline that was just starting to emerge when he was a graduate student in the mid-1960s at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he earned his Ph.D. Under a post-doctoral fellowship, he was dispatched to Africa and worked for three years at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya. He and his colleagues researched the pheromones of ticks because they are disease carriers.
“We wanted to find out possible ways of preventing them from mating and interrupt their life cycle.” He and his colleagues succeeded in isolating the pheromone—a means of chemical communication between members of the same species—but it smelled so bad it couldn’t be used. “The idea was to treat cattle with the pheromone to confuse male ticks hunting for females with which to mate.”
Chemical ecology is a blend of chemistry and biology, which was one of Bill’s hobbies from childhood. “I read biology books for fun as a kid and despite my degree in chemistry I’d always been interested in it.” He chose pheromones for his graduate research seminar; only three were known at the time, although the human male’s search for a reliable aphrodisiac guaranteed to arouse women is centuries old and shot through with myth and superstition. It was the combination of the two disciplines, chemistry and biology, that captured his imagination and led to his focus on chemical ecology, which he calls the interface between the two.
As for how Bill became interested in chemistry in the first place: Well, it had nothing to do with skunks. Grinning mischievously, he reveals, “I got interested from making fireworks and explosions, things that today would end you up in juvenile hall. We talked our science teacher at Luther Burbank Junior High into giving us chemicals from the stockroom. We went out and made bombs and blew holes in the football field! And no, the teacher didn’t get fired. It was 1957, the year the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and we all made rockets. It was just kids having fun in those days; but I did have friends who didn’t have all their fingers.”
Today, far from Burbank, Wood is quoted regularly in the international press. Most recently he appeared in a Royal Chemical Society of London newsletter. He was asked to comment on Chinese scientists’ discovery that the deaths of more than 260 healthy villagers over a period of 30 years were probably attributable to three poisonous compounds found in a previously unknown mushroom that grows locally in Yunnan Province in the country’s southwest. Two of the compounds are novel amino acids and one is an already-known organic acid.
Wood called the finding “remarkable, since it combines natural product chemistry, toxicology and human pathology. The interesting structure of the two acetylenic amino acids demonstrates that mushrooms are capable of extraordinary chemical syntheses.”
Ever curious, Wood stays current with the latest research on human pheromones. The findings indicate that men’s lubricious hopes for a powerful love philter must remain frustrated. Female sexual attraction to male underarm odor has not been demonstrated. There is no potion to be produced from that quarter.
Bill is a realist. “Products will still be sold claiming to make the male irresistible to the female of our species, even though there is no scientific proof for this claim.”