The Greenland shark and a pot of boiling pasta water might not have much in common at first glance, but when viewed through a microscope of chemistry the two are just different sides of the same illegal tender coin.
The chemistry we’re talking about here deals with the properties of water and what happens when substances are dissolved into it.
When boiling water for pasta, convention holds that you heavily salt the water before adding your soon-to-be-consumed starch. This isn’t because it makes the water boil “faster”, but rather boil at a higher temperature and so quickening the cooking of the pasta.
A nifty quirk of water is that any substance dissolved into it will raise the boiling point of the water in a solute concentration dependent fashion, i.e., the more [salt] you add, the farther above 212 degrees F the water will boil. So…what does this have to do with a rather large and unassuming shark?
The answer lies in the continuation of the actions of water when it becomes a heterogeneous solution: in the same way that the boiling point of water is raised when a solute is dissolved into it, the freezing point of the water is concomitantly lowered in the same concentration dependent fashion.
As the name might imply, the Greenland shark inhabits the waters of very northern latitudes and so lives in sub-freezing temperatures. Under “normal” conditions, the tissues and blood in its body would freeze solid turning it into an unbattered fish stick.
The shark however has evolved the physiological equivalent of antifreeze, stuffing its fluids full of a uric acid salt (uric acid is a component of bird droppings and the crystals formed in gout) effectively lowering the freezing point well below the temperature of the water. Good for the shark, bad for the Icelandic traditionalists who enjoy eating the meat as Hákarl, an ancient dish. The meat is toxic to humans, and so must first be “cleansed” of the poison by basically letting the meat rot for a few months, during which time the contaminants will be naturally extruded.
As a side note, this is why streets are salted when it snows. The salt lowers the freezing point of the water and prevents ice from forming and turning the road into an icy Thunderdome.
Ahhh, human ingenuity, you’ve gotta love it.