Phosphorus: Glowing, Flammable, and Essential to Our Cells

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Of the 118 known elements, scientists believe that 25 are essential for human biology. Four of these (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon) make up a whopping 96 percent of our bodies. The other 21 elements, though needed in smaller quantities, perform fascinating and vital functions. Phosphorus is one such element. It has diverse uses outside of biology. For example, it can fuel festive Fourth of July fireworks! Inside our bodies, it’s crucial for a wide range of cell functions.

A graphic showing phosphorus’s abbreviation, atomic number, and atomic weight connected by lines to illustrations of DNA helixes, a match, and a glowing white pyramid. Phosphorus plays a vital role in life as part of DNA’s backbone. Red phosphorus helps ignite matches, and white phosphorus glows in the presence of oxygen. Credit: Compound Interest.
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Exploring Nature’s Treasure Trove of Helpful Compounds

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An oblong shell with white-and-brown markings. A cone snail shell. Credit: Kerry Matz, University of Utah.

Over the years, scientists have discovered many compounds in nature that have led to the development of medications. For instance, the molecular structure for aspirin came from willow tree bark, and penicillin was found in a type of mold. And uses of natural products aren’t limited to medicine cabinet staples and antibiotics. A cancer drug was originally found in the bark of the Pacific yew tree, and a medication for chronic pain relief was first isolated from cone snail venom. Today, NIGMS supports scientists in the earliest stages of investigating natural products made by plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals. The results could inform future research and bring advances to the field of medicine.

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Fish Shed Light on Fatherhood in the Animal Kingdom

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Two small gray adult monkeys, one of which has two baby monkeys on its back, on a tree branch. A family of common marmosets. Credit: Francesco Veronesi. CC BY-SA 2.0 Link to external web site.

Fatherhood takes many forms across the animal kingdom. For instance, mammalian fathers are often uninvolved, with only about 10 percent helping to raise their offspring. However, that small percentage of males often makes valuable contributions to their offspring’s upbringing. For instance, cotton-top tamarin and common marmoset dads have the responsibility of carrying babies—which are typically born as sets of twins—almost constantly from birth until independence.

In other groups of animals, fathers are much more likely to share responsibilities with mothers or even act as sole caregivers. Male and female birds contribute equally to raising chicks in most cases. But in rheas and emus—both large, flightless birds—fathers incubate eggs and take care of hatchlings on their own.

And most fish don’t care for their young, but out of the species that do, between one-third and one-half rely on fathers parenting alone. Perhaps the most well-known example is the seahorse, where the male becomes pregnant, carrying his mate’s fertilized eggs in a pouch on his belly until they hatch. Alison M. Bell, Ph.D. Link to external web site, professor of evolution, ecology, and behavior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is investigating paternal care in another fish species where fathers raise offspring solo: the three-spined stickleback. Her work not only helps us understand the value of paternal care for sticklebacks, but also contributes to growing evidence across many species that fatherhood changes males on a physiological level.

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Scientist Interview: Studying the Biochemistry of Insects with Michael Kanost

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Insects vastly outnumber people on our planet. Some are pests, but many are key parts of their ecosystems, and some may even hold secrets for developing new materials that researchers could use in the medical field. Michael Kanost, Ph.D. Link to external web site, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, has been researching the biochemistry of insects for more than 30 years. His lab studies the tobacco hornworm, a mosquito that carries malaria, and the red flour beetle to better understand insect exoskeletons and immune systems.

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Helium: An Abundant History and a Shortage Threatening Scientific Tools

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Most of us know helium as the gas that makes balloons float, but the second element on the periodic table does much more than that. Helium pressurizes the fuel tanks in rockets, helps test space suits for leaks, and is important in producing components of electronic devices. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines that take images of our internal organs can’t function without helium. And neither can nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers that researchers use to determine the structures of proteins—information that’s important in the development of medications and other uses.

A square showing helium’s abbreviation, atomic number, and atomic weight connected by lines to illustrations of a scuba diver, a car, and a person in an MRI machine. Helium’s many uses include helping deep sea divers breathe underwater, airbags in cars to inflate, and magnets in MRI scanners to work properly. Credit: Compound Interest.
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Reusable Disinfectant Developed from Mussel “Glue”

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A pile of ocean mussels with shiny black shells.Mimicking mussels’ natural “glue” could have multiple benefits.

Many species have developed unique adaptations to help them thrive in their environments, and scientists in a field called biomimicry use these examples as the basis for tools to help humans. Biomimicry researchers have made a wide range of products, from climbing pads modeled after gecko feet to a faster, sharp-nosed bullet train based on the beak of the kingfisher bird. The animal kingdom also provides inspiration for biomedical products. For instance, scientists at Michigan Technological University in Houghton discovered that a natural “glue” produced by mussels has antimicrobial properties and are developing a way to put these properties to use.

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Scientist Interview: Exploring the Promise of RNA Switches with Christina Dawn Smolke

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Whether animals are looking for food or mates, or avoiding pathogens and predators, they rely on biosensors—molecules that allow them to sense and respond to their environments. Christina Dawn Smolke, Ph.D. Link to external web site, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University in California, focuses her research on creating new kinds of biosensors to receive, process, and transmit molecular information. Her lab has built RNA molecules, or switches, that can alter gene expression based on biochemical changes they detect.

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The Maternal Magic of Mitochondria

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An oblong purple shape with ripples throughout against a light blue background. Mitochondria (purple) in a rodent heart muscle cell. Credit: Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research.

Mitochondria (mitochondrion in singular) are indispensable. Every cell of our bodies, apart from mature red blood cells, contains the capsule-shaped organelles that generate more than 90 percent of our energy, which is why they’re often called “the powerhouse of the cell.” They produce this energy by forming adenosine triphosphate (ATP), our cells’ most common energy source. But mitochondria also support cells in other ways. For example, they help cells maintain the correct concentration of calcium ions, which are involved in blood clotting and muscle contraction. Mitochondria are also the only structure in our cells with their own unique DNA, which with rare exceptions, is inherited only from mothers. That’s why, in honor of Mother’s Day, we’re exploring this special cellular connection to moms.

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The Science of Infectious Disease Modeling

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What Is Computer Modeling and How Does It Work?

Recent news headlines are awash in references to “modeling the spread” and “flattening the curve.” You may have wondered what exactly this means and how it applies to the COVID-19 pandemic. Infectious disease modeling is part of the larger field of computer modeling. This type of research uses computers to simulate and study the behavior of complex systems using mathematics, physics, and computer science. Each model contains many variables that characterize the system being studied. Simulation is done by adjusting each of the variables, alone or in combination, to see how the changes affect the outcomes. Computer modeling is used in a wide array of applications, from weather forecasting, airplane flight simulation, and drug development to infectious disease spread and containment.

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Cool Images: The Hidden Beauty Inside Plants

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Spring brings with it a wide array of beautiful flowers, but the interior structures of plants can be just as stunning. Using powerful microscopes, researchers can peek into the many molecular bits and pieces that make up plants. Check out these cool plant images from our Image and Video Gallery that NIGMS-funded scientists created while doing their research.

Several round structures that are yellow at the center and pink and purple around the edges and have honeycomb-like interiors. Credit: Arun Sampathkumar and Elliot Meyerowitz, California Institute of Technology.

In plants and animals, stem cells can transform into a variety of different cell types. The stem cells at the growing tip of this Arabidopsis plant will soon become flowers. Cellular and molecular biologists frequently study Arabidopsis because it grows rapidly (its entire life cycle is only 6 weeks), produces lots of seeds, and has a genome that’s easy to manipulate.

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