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Did Director Steven Soderbergh Get The Chemistry Right…Again?

Mark Griep is a chemistry professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who is searching for new antibiotics and who recently received a College Distinguished Teaching Award.  Along with Marjorie Mikasen he wrote ReAction!: Chemistry in the Movies, which focuses on chemistry’s 9780195326925role in the narrative of films.  The focus is on contemporary Hollywood feature films, but also include a sampling of documentaries, shorts, silents and international films.  In the original article below, Griep looks at the new film, The Informant!.

The Informant! was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who directed Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning performance in Erin Brockovich (2000). In this latest movie, Matt Damon plays a corporate executive turned whistleblower with a twist; he proves to be an unreliable witness. Damon is so effective in this role that he has already received Oscar speculation in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly. Since both movies are based on true stories that involve real chemistry, I was curious to know whether Soderbergh got the real chemistry right again.

In Erin Brockovich, Brockovich (Julia Roberts) is an unemployed young mother of three children, perhaps the ultimate underdog. She hustles herself into a legal case against Pacific Gas & Electric. The company allowed hexavalent chromium to leak into a small town’s water supply and then covered it up. Brockovich makes a case that it caused many diseases in the townsfolk and wins the biggest corporate settlement to date. From the movie, the audience learns that hexavalent chromium is toxic but not much else. In our book, we identify the family of compounds meant by “hexavalent chromium”, the reason they were used by PG&E, and the nature of their toxicity.

In The Informant!, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) has a PhD in Biochemistry, meaning he’s not much of an underdog. Instead, he is an enthusiastic booster of his company’s products. The movie opens with him quizzing his son about the contents of orange juice, maple syrup, and plastic bags. The answer every time is “corn”. Then, as narrator, he introduces himself and says: “most people haven’t heard of us [ADM] but everyone has eaten our products. We turn dextrose into the amino acid lysine. We put corn in one end and profit comes out the other.”

What an excellent introduction to corn syrup. To make it, the kernels are ground into a powder, the water-soluble starch (a large molecule composed of many glucose molecules connected together by chemical bonds) is separated from the other material, and the resulting mush is treated with the enzyme amylase to break the long glucose chain into smaller ones. The shortest is maltose with only two glucose molecules connected together by one strong chemical bond. The final step is to treat this mixture with another enzyme called glucoamylase to break some of it to the desired amount of glucose monomer, a sweet-tasting sugar. Corn syrup is a thickener, a sweetener, and a humectant (water-retainer) all rolled into one. This “corn syrup” is also the raw material used to create high-fructose corn syrup and the four molecules mentioned in the movie: lysine (see structure below), citric acid, gluconate, and threonine.

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As journalist Kurt Eichenwald explains in his 2000 book titled The Informant, the real Whitacre was hired in the 1989 to lead Archer Daniels Midland’s new lysine production facility. His facility fermented the corn syrup with a soil bacterium called Corynebacterium glutamicum and it excreted lysine as its waste product. As long as the price of starch is low, lysine produced in this way costs much less than by synthetic chemical methods. After Whitacre discovered the company had set up agreements to control worldwide lysine supply in 1992 (they managed to raise the price by 70% over nine months), his wife prompted him to inform the FBI. He then helped them gather evidence for two and a half years. In the end, three company executives were jailed for the scheme and ADM paid the largest antitrust fine for such a crime. Whitacre was also jailed because he embezzled millions of dollars from ADM during the same period. In the movie, Whitacre’s unreliability increases as the movie progresses to give actor Matt Damon a juicy part to play.

When pigs and poultry are fed soybeans, they grow fast because they obtain a sufficient complement of amino acids from the soybean proteins. When they are fed corn, they don’t. Corn proteins are low in the amino acid lysine and many studies have shown lysine is the most important growth-limiting nutrient for these two animals. As Whitacre explains after only 3 minutes of movie time: “When you feed chicken corn plus lysine, it goes to market in six weeks rather than eight.” As an aside, you may recall the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993) were genetically engineered to require lysine in their diets. If they escaped the island, they would die in seven days because they wouldn’t receive their lysine-supplemented food. The demand for lysine as a feedstock supplement has been growing since the 1960s. Until ADM began fermenting corn syrup into lysine in 1989, the world’s lysine supply was produced by two companies in Japan and one in South Korea. The international lysine price-fixing conspiracy involved all four of these companies.

I would say The Informant! has just as much screen chemistry as Erin Brockovich. Both feature engaging characters fighting the forces of unethical companies with plots involving chemicals. The difference is that The Informant! provides a little bit more information about the chemical and why it is important. While it was amusing to see a dial reading “Lysine Levels Abnormal”, it would have been even better if they had shown the chemical structure of lysine. Now that would have given me a real reaction!

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2 Responses to “Did Director Steven Soderbergh Get The Chemistry Right…Again?”
  1. Sarah H says:

    As a lay person, I really enjoyed reading more about this. Your book, “Reaction!: Chemistry in the Movies” was just as informative.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you like the book too.

    Another movie with chemistry that just opened is “Good Hair”, a documentary by comedian Chris Rock that examines African-American hairstyles. He makes a point that sodium hydroxide is often used as a hair relaxant and is also a highly corrosive substance. As part of the beauty industry, his movie would fit in with our Chapter 6 about inventor chemists. These hair products were developed in the 1890s to 1930s by several African-American inventors for the African-American market.

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