Pass the Salt: Sodium’s Role in Nerve Signaling and Stress on Blood Vessels

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Most of the mouthwatering dishes in a Thanksgiving feast share a vital ingredient: salt! Though the words “salt” and “sodium” are often used interchangeably, table salt is actually a compound combining the elements sodium and chloride. Table salt is the most common form that sodium takes on Earth. Many other sodium compounds are also useful to us. For instance, you might use baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, in preparing Thanksgiving treats. Sodium compounds are also used in soaps and cosmetics and in producing paper, glass, metals, medicines, and more.

A graphic showing sodium’s abbreviation, atomic number, and atomic weight connected by lines to illustrations of a saltshaker, a streetlight, and a human arm flexing its muscle. The best-known sodium compound is table salt (sodium chloride). Sodium also gives traditional streetlights their yellow glow and is essential for muscle and nerve function. Credit: Compound Interest. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge
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Q&A With Nobel Laureate and CRISPR Scientist Jennifer Doudna

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A headshot of Dr. Doudna. Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D. Credit: University of California, Berkeley.

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Jennifer Doudna, Ph.D., and Emmanuelle Charpentier, Ph.D., for the development of the gene-editing tool CRISPR. Dr. Doudna shared her thoughts on the award and answered questions about CRISPR in a live chat with NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. Here are a few highlights from the interview.

Q: How did you find out that you won the Nobel Prize?

A: It’s a little bit of an embarrassing story. I slept through a very important phone call and finally woke up when a reporter called me. I was just coming out of a deep sleep, and the reporter was asking, “What do you think about the Nobel?” And I said, “I don’t know anything about it. Who won it?” I thought they were asking for comments on somebody else who won it. And she said, “Oh my gosh! You don’t know! You won it!”

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Quiz: How Does Your Knowledge of Life’s Building Blocks Stack Up?

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Cells are the smallest units of life, providing structure and function for all living things, from microorganisms—like bacteria, algae, and yeast—to humans. They come in a wide range of sizes and shapes, and they’re complex machines with many smaller components that work together.

Some NIGMS-funded researchers use imaging techniques to peer inside cells, examine their structures, and study how they divide, grow, communicate, and carry out basic functions. Others use biochemical and genetic tests to study how cells interact with their environments, including those that may be toxic. Understanding cells’ biological processes helps to keep us healthy and identify new methods for treating disease.

Take our quiz to test how well you know cells. Afterward, check out our Studying Cells fact sheet and other blog posts on cell biology.

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Freezing a Moment in Time: Snapshots of Cryo-EM Research

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To get a look at cell components that are too small to see with a normal light microscope, scientists often use cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). As the prefix cryo- means “cold” or “freezing,” cryo-EM involves rapidly freezing a cell, virus, molecular complex, or other structure to prevent water molecules from forming crystals. This preserves the sample in its natural state and keeps it still so that it can be imaged with an electron microscope, which uses beams of electrons instead of light. Some electrons are scattered by the sample, while others pass through it and through magnetic lenses to land on a detector and form an image.

Typically, samples contain many copies of the object a scientist wants to study, frozen in a range of orientations. Researchers take images of these various positions and combine them into a detailed 3D model of the structure. Electron microscopes allow us to see much smaller structures than light microscopes do because the wavelengths of electrons are much shorter than the wavelength of light. NIGMS-funded researchers are using cryo-EM to investigate a range of scientific questions.

Caught in Translation

One cluster that is yellow, purple, and orange and another that is beige, purple, and green. 3D reconstructions of two stages in the assembly of the bacterial ribosome created from time-resolved cryo-EM images. Credit: Joachim Frank, Columbia University.

Joachim Frank, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics and of biological sciences at Columbia University in New York, New York, along with two other researchers, won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing cryo.

Dr. Frank’s lab focuses on the process of translation, where structures called ribosomes turn genetic instructions into proteins, which are needed for many chemical reactions that support life. Recently, Dr. Frank has adopted and further developed a technique called time-resolved cryo-EM. This method captures images of short-lived states in translation that disappear too quickly (after less than a second) for standard cryo-EM to capture. The ability to fully visualize translation could help researchers identify errors in the process that lead to disease and also to develop treatments.

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Scientist Interview: Investigating Circadian Rhythms with Michael W. Young

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Sudden changes to our schedules, like the end of daylight saving time this Sunday or flying across time zones, often leave us feeling off kilter because they disrupt our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. When these “biological clocks” are disrupted, our bodies eventually readjust. However, some people have conditions that cause their circadian rhythms to be permanently out of sync with their surroundings.

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How I Got Here: A Webinar on Following Your Own Career Path

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There is no single avenue to a scientific career—the paths are as diverse as the people who pursue them. In a recent webinar, two NIGMS-supported researchers shared their unique journeys as scientists and their advice for those seeking careers in the field. The webinar is part of a series from NIGMS created for the research training community—students, postdocs, and faculty. Experts focus on topics from infectious disease modeling to virtual teaching and learning. 

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Pathways: The Superbug Issue

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Cover of Pathways student magazine showing blueish-green virus particles and text that reads, Stop the Spread of Superbugs (Yes, you can help!). Cover of Pathways student magazine.

NIGMS and Scholastic bring you our latest issue of Pathways, which focuses on superbugs—infectious microbes that can’t be fought off with medicines. Viruses that can’t be prevented with vaccines, such as the common cold, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria both fall into this category.

Pathways, designed for students in grades 6 through 12, is a collection of free resources that teaches students about basic science and its importance to health, as well as exciting research careers.

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Decades of Dedication: Angela Wandinger-Ness Recognized for Outstanding Mentoring

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“Each person has something that they uniquely want to do, and as a mentor, you have to help uncover that,” says Angela Wandinger-Ness, Ph.D., the Victor and Ruby Hansen Surface Endowed Professor in Cancer Cell Biology and Clinical Translation in the department of pathology at the University of New Mexico (UNM) School of Medicine. “You have to put opportunities in front of them. You see what excites them, and then you steer them.” Dr. Wandinger-Ness is among this year’s honorees of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM).

Dr. Wandinger-Ness, Amber Rauch, and Melanie Rivera standing together in a laboratory. Dr. Wandinger-Ness (left) with former undergraduate trainee Amber Rauch (center) and current Ph.D. trainee Melanie Rivera. Credit: Angela Wandinger-Ness, Ph.D.

The PAESMEM was established by the White House in 1995. This year, recipients were honored during a virtual awards ceremony. Each awardee received a grant from the National Science Foundation, which manages the PAESMEM on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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Shedding Light on Sepsis

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Sepsis is the body’s overactive and extreme response to an infection. It’s unpredictable, can progress rapidly, and affects more than 1.7 million people in the United States each year. Without prompt treatment, it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death. NIGMS supports state-of-the-art sepsis research, including the development of rapid diagnostics and new therapeutics. September is Sepsis Awareness Month, and we’re highlighting a few resources that offer more information about this condition.

Our infographic provides details at a glance on basic statistics and the future of sepsis research. It’s also available in Spanish.

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