The Life and Science of Percy Julian
Activities and Readings
8A (Reading)

The Many Faces of Steroids

Normally, when you hear the word steroids, you think of athletes breaking the rules by giving themselves shots of muscle-building hormones to become stronger and faster. This is one use of steroids, but the hormones that athletes aren’t supposed to use are just one kind of steroid.

Steroids are a family of chemical compounds. There are many different steroids found in living things. Your body makes many steroids that do various jobs in the body. For example, cholesterol (the compound doctors warn us to look out for in the food we eat) is a steroid. Though too much can be harmful, cholesterol also plays an essential role in producing cell membranes. Other steroids help you digest fat. Still others are used as medicines. Allergies are often treated with steroids. Steroids like cortisone are used to treat inflammation. Cortisone is also a good treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Another steroid, digitalis, is found in a plant called foxglove and is a powerful heart medication.

Steroids are used in an interesting way by some indigenous peoples in South America who still get most of their food from hunting and gathering. Many of these people hunt with bows and arrows. They often put poison on the tips of their arrows to make sure they kill whatever they shoot. The poison comes from colorful tree frogs that have a poisonous coating on their skin, which helps keep the frogs from being eaten by bigger, nastier animals. The poison is—you guessed it!—a steroid.

Scientists are currently trying to develop a shark repellent from steroids. Scientists knew that sharks don’t like eat a certain kind of fish, but they didn’t know why. So they asked how this fish was different from every other fish in the ocean. They studied the fish and found out that it had a coating of steroids on its skin. It was like the coating on the tree frog’s skin but not as poisonous. The scientists wondered if the steroids on the fish’s skin were repelling sharks somehow, and now they are trying to figure out how to use these steroids to protect swimmers, surfers, and divers from sharks.

So how can steroids do so many different things? Steroids are kind of like cars. Pretend you’re making a car. You start with a chassis. You could bolt on a big engine, a slick body, and some fancy rims, and you’d have a sports car. You could bolt different parts onto it and make it a station wagon, a minivan, or a convertible. The chassis is the backbone of the car, and you can make very different cars by bolting different parts onto the same chassis.

For steroids, the chassis or backbone is a group of carbon atoms. Those carbon atoms are arranged into four rings that are joined together like you see in the picture. Different atoms can be attached to the carbon atoms in the rings to make different steroid molecules, each with different properties. Change an atom here, change an atom there, and you’ve turned an illegal performance-enhancing drug into a safe medicine for treating allergies.

Percy Julian spent a lot of time tweaking steroids in this way. For example, he turned steroids from soybeans into cortisone. He also turned steroids from Mexican yams into sex hormones, which paved the way for other scientists to invent the birth control pill. Later in his career, he looked into steroids that could be used as liquid crystals, which today are used to make the liquid-crystal displays on every cell phone, calculator, and digital watch. In fact, tweaking steroids was so important to Julian Laboratories that he put the four rings of the steroid chassis on his business cards and company stationery.

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