Category: Chemistry, Biochemistry and Pharmacology

Dairy Deconstructor: How an Enzyme Enables Milk Digestion

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Did you know that the lack of a single enzyme is responsible for lactose intolerance, a common condition that causes people to have trouble digesting milk? Fortunately, the enzyme is available in an over-the-counter pill for lactose-intolerant people who want to enjoy dairy products. Enzymes are molecules—almost always proteins—that speed up chemical reactions by reducing the amount of energy needed for the reactions to proceed. Without them, many processes in our bodies would essentially grind to a halt.

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Pumping Iron: The Heavy Lifting Iron Does in Our Bodies

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Our blood appears red for the same reason the planet Mars does: iron. The element may bring to mind cast-iron pans, wrought-iron fences, or ancient iron tools, but it’s also essential to life on Earth. All living organisms, from humans to bacteria, need iron. It’s crucial for many processes in the human body, including oxygen transport, muscle function, proper growth, cell health, and the production of several hormones.

A graphic showing iron’s abbreviation, atomic number, and atomic weight connected by lines to illustrations of a vial of blood, Mars, and Earth. Iron is the reason both our blood and the planet Mars appear red. The element also makes up the majority of Earth’s core and generates the planet’s magnetic field. Credit: Compound Interest. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge
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Engage Learners in Science and Health With Our Kahoots!

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NIGMS, in collaboration with Scholastic, has developed a collection of free biology and health activities on the educational app Kahoot! You can play them alone, with friends, or with a class of students. Four Kahoots! are currently available:

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Quiz: Prove Your Knowledge of Proteins!

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Proteins play a role in virtually every activity in the body. They make up hair and nails, help muscles move, protect against infection, and more. Many NIGMS-funded researchers study the rich variety of proteins in humans and other organisms to shed light on their roles in health and disease.

Take our quiz to test how much you know about proteins. Afterward, find more quizzes and other fun learning tools on our activities and multimedia webpage, which includes an interactive protein alphabet.

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Zinc: Zapping Invaders

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Although zinc may appear last on nutrition labels, it’s the second-most abundant trace element in our bodies, behind only iron. (Trace elements are molecules our bodies need in small amounts to stay healthy). Zinc is crucial for a well-functioning immune system, wound healing, physical growth, the senses of taste and smell, and the construction of proteins and DNA. It can also partner with oxygen to form zinc oxide, a compound that scatters ultraviolet light and can act as a protective barrier over inflamed skin. Many sunscreens, burn ointments, diaper creams, and other skin treatments contain zinc oxide.

A graphic showing zinc’s abbreviation, atomic number, and atomic weight connected by lines to illustrations of an I-beam, a cosmetics bottle, and a pill. Zinc may help shorten colds, and it’s part of a compound that can protect skin from ultraviolet light. The element is also used to coat other metals and prevent rusting. Credit: Compound Interest. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge
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Career Conversations: Q&A with Organic Chemist Osvaldo Gutierrez

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Osvaldo Gutierrez, Ph.D., was born in Rancho Los Prietos, a small town in central Mexico where his grandmother served as a midwife. Seeing how his grandmother helped people through her work inspired Dr. Gutierrez to pursue a career where he, too, could help people. His family emigrated to the United States when he was young. Despite challenges he faced in a new country, he graduated from high school, attended community college, and was accepted to the University of California, Los Angeles. He originally planned to become a medical doctor, but an undergraduate research experience sparked an interest in chemistry, and he ultimately earned a Ph.D. in the field.

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Year in Review: Our Top Three Posts of 2020

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Over the year, we dove into the inner workings of cells, interviewed award-winning researchers supported by NIGMS, shared a cool collection of science-themed backgrounds for video calls, and more. Here, we highlight three of the most popular posts from 2020. Tell us which of this year’s posts you liked best in the comments section below!

The Science of Infectious Disease Modeling

Oblong light-blue structures with red spots in the middle connected to the surface of a sphere. Spike proteins on the surface of a coronavirus. Credit: David Veesler, University of Washington.

What does “modeling the spread” (or “flattening the curve”) mean, and how does it apply to infectious diseases such as COVID-19? Learn about the science of infectious disease modeling and how NIGMS supports scientists in the field.

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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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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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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.
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Link to external web site. Click to enlarge
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