Happy National Chemistry Week! In honor of this celebration, we’re showcasing posts that focus on elements crucial for human health and scientific exploration. NIGMS-supported scientists are studying how each of these elements (and many others) can impact human health. Check out the list below to learn more, and let us know what your favorite element is in the comments section!
Helium: An Abundant History and a Shortage Threatening Scientific Tools
Scientists first discovered helium burning on the surface of the sun. Today, liquid helium plays an essential role in supercooling vital scientific and medical equipment, such as magnetic resonance imaging machines that take images of our internal organs. Unfortunately, our complex history with the element has led to a recent shortage that threatens some types of scientific research.
NIGMS and Scholastic bring you Pathways: The Anesthesia Issue, which explores pain and the science behind anesthesia—the medical treatment that prevents patients from feeling pain during surgery and other procedures. Without anesthesia, many life-saving medical procedures would be impossible.
Pathways, designed for students in grades 6 through 12, aims to build awareness of basic biomedical science and its importance to health, while inspiring careers in research. All materials in the collection are available online and are free for parents, educators, and students nationwide.
“If I was going to do science, I wanted it to help people,” says Julia Bohannon, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
Dr. Bohannon researches therapies that could help prevent infections in patients with severe burn injuries. Infections are common in these patients because burn injuries typically suppress the immune system. Dr. Bohannon originally planned to become a burn surgeon, inspired by the doctor who treated her after she was severely burned as a child. But during her junior year of college at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, she started working in a genetics lab and enjoyed it so much that she began considering a research career.
Choosing a Path Forward
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Dr. Bohannon worked for 2 gap years in a translational research lab at the University of Kentucky to decide between pursuing an M.D. or a Ph.D. She ultimately entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and conducted research in the lab of Tracy Toliver-Kinsky, Ph.D., at the Shriners Children’s burn center. Upon earning her Ph.D., Dr. Bohannon took a postdoctoral position with Edward Sherwood, Ph.D., at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where she studied potential treatments to improve immune cell function after burns. To continue her work, she followed Dr. Sherwood a year later when he moved to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Large sugar molecules called glycans coat every cell in our bodies. They can also be found inside and between cells, and they are important for many biological processes, including how our cells interact with one another and with pathogens. For example, glycans on red blood cells determine blood type, and those on the cells of organs determine whether a person can receive a transplant from a particular donor. Scientists have only begun to explore sugars’ complexities and potential uses. Here, we look at the contributions three NIGMS-supported researchers are making to glycoscience.
Human Milk Sugars
Glycans called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) make up a significant portion of human milk. Study findings have shown that some HMOs can be prebiotics—substances that encourage beneficial bacteria to grow. Research has also revealed that some disease-causing microbes bind to certain HMOs, potentially allowing the germs to pass through the body without causing illness.
Formation of a biofilm often involves a process called quorum sensing. In this process, microbes detect when they reach a certain population density and change their behavior in ways that help them function as a community.
Your immune system is on patrol every day. It protects your body from bacteria, viruses, and other germs. But if something goes wrong, it can also cause big problems.
Sepsis happens when your body’s response to an infection spirals out of control. Your body releases molecules into the blood called cytokines to fight the infection. But those molecules then trigger a chain reaction.
“Sepsis is basically a life-threatening infection that leads to organ dysfunction,” says Richard Hotchkiss, M.D., who studies sepsis at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The most dangerous stage of sepsis is called septic shock. It can cause multiple organs to fail, including the liver, lungs, and kidneys.
Septic shock begins when the body’s response to an infection damages blood vessels. When blood vessels are damaged, your blood pressure can drop very low. Without normal blood flow, your body can’t get enough oxygen.
Your body is made up of trillions of cells that all originate from just one—a fertilized egg. The massive multiplication of cells after conception is possible thanks to cell division, which occurs when one cell splits into two. Cell division not only enables growth but also replaces damaged or dead cells and makes reproduction possible. There are two kinds of cell division: mitosis and meiosis.
Mitosis is shown on the left, and meiosis is shown on the right. Credit: Judith Stoffer. Click to enlarge
Dr. Ramos-Benítez researches interactions between pathogens—such as the viruses that cause Ebola and COVID-19—and their hosts. He’s also the founder and president of Ciencia en tus Manos (“Science in Your Hands”), a nonprofit organization that presents scientific information in Spanish and aims to provide a community to support the next generation of scientists.
Navajo students are contributing to public health efforts in diabetes, COVID-19, domestic violence, and maternal and child health through the Navajo Native American Research Center for Health (NARCH) Partnership. “Our goal is to really enhance the educational pathways available to Navajo students from high school to graduate school and beyond,” says Mark Bauer, Ph.D., a co-director of the Navajo NARCH Partnership and professor at Diné College—a tribal college on the Navajo Nation. (Diné means “the people” and is how Navajo people refer to themselves in their native language.)
Most cells are naturally colorless, which is why scientists often use fluorescent tags and other tools to color cell structures and make them easier to study. (Check out the Pathways imaging issue for more on scientific imaging techniques). Here, we’re showcasing cell images that feature shades of blue. Visit our Image and Video Gallery for additional images of cells in all the colors of the rainbow, as well as other scientific photos, illustrations, and videos.