Biology & the Myth of scylla and charybdis
Classical mythology has greatly influenced many aspects of Western Culture, ranging from literature to cinematography. Many may expect the myths of ancient antiquity to be polar opposite to Science, however, it surprisingly plays an integral part of it in some aspects. One of the well known Classical myths to appear in Science is the myth of Scylla and Charybdis, which appears in various facets of Biology such as Taxonomy, Genetics, and Biochemistry.
In simple terms, as appears in Homer’s Odyssey, Scylla was a sea monster who had a woman’s torso but a fish tail from which six fierce dogs emerge. These dogs were similar to the kraken where they would fiercely attack ships sailing by and devour them into the deep ocean. Similarly, there is Charybdis, also known as a whirlpool, which gorges ships nearby its path.
The names of Scylla and Charybdis have been used often in the world of taxonomy, particularly during the time of Carl Linnaeus when he began to create his own form of nomenclature in the eighteenth century. In 1753, Linnaeus named a plant Scilla maritima, what is often known as the sea onion or the sea squill. Later on, despite continuous changes in taxonomy, by 1998 the plant was given the name Charybdis maritima. Similarly, in a broad genre called Cancer, several genera have become separated, two of which have been called Scilla and the other Charybdis.
In ancient times, the sea onion has had diverse uses as traditional medicines, such as diuretic, stabilizer, and emetic. It is also used as an insecticide and as rat poison. Biochemically, the plant possesses various alkaloids and glycosides named after Scylla and Charybdis, such as scillirosides. The chemical has been investigated by scientists to have cardiotonic, antimicrobial, and cytotoxic properties.
Furthermore, it was then discovered in 2006 that the bulbs of the sea onion contain a ribosome inactivating protein known as charybdin. In relation to this type of protein, intense research is being carried out to utilise them as immunotoxins that counter cancer.
Interestingly, by 2016, it was verified that in ancient times the bulbs of the sea onion had been used in funeral practices.
Additionally, mythological names are also prevalent in the naming of genes and their mutations. For instance, in the Drosophila vinegar fly, some of its genes were named after Ariadne and Medea. Simultaneously, two genes have been described as scilla and charybdis, or sic that are involved in the organism’s development.
Consequently, these utilisations of Scylla and Charybdis indicate that mythology has left their mark on Science. Perhaps it was mythology that provided the first glimmers of Science. After all, the very first scientists came from Ancient Greece, those being people like Aristotle and Democritus.
Rejón, M.R. (2018). Greek Myths in Science: Scylla and Charybdis. [online] OpenMind. Available at: https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/humanities/culture/greek-myths-in-science-scylla-and-charybdis/.
Scuderi, A. et al. 2006. scylla and charybde, homologues of the human apoptotic gene RTP801, are required for head involution in Drosophila. Biology. 291, 1:110-122
Touloupakis, E. et al. 2006. Isolation, characterization, sequencing and crystal structure of charybdin, a type 1 ribosome-inactivating protein from Charybdis marítima agg. FEBS J. 2006, 273(12): 2682-92.
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