Category: Chemistry, Biochemistry and Pharmacology

In Other Words: The Pathways Inside Our Bodies

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For many people, the word pathway may bring to mind stepping stones in a garden or a trail through a forest. But when biologists talk about a pathway, they’re referring to a series of actions among molecules in a cell that leads to a certain product or change within that cell. Pathways maintain balance during walking, control how the eyes’ pupils respond to light, and affect skin’s reaction to changing temperature. They control our bodies’ responses to the world, and errors in them can lead to disease.

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Fifty Years of the Protein Data Bank!

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Macromolecular structures in the shape of the number 50. Protein Data Bank’s 50 years logo. Credit: PDB website.

The Protein Data Bank (PDB), established in 1971, is the single global repository for 3D structural data of proteins, DNA, RNA, and even complexes these biological molecules form with drugs or other small molecules. More than 1 million people—including researchers, medical professionals, educators, and students—use the PDB each year. NIGMS and other parts of NIH have helped fund this free digital resource since 1978.

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Career Conversations: Q&A with Biologist Akhila Rajan

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A headshot of Dr. Akhila Rajan. Dr. Akhila Rajan. Credit: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“What makes being a scientist exciting is that I don’t know what I’m going to find tomorrow,” says Akhila Rajan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the basic sciences division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. Dr. Rajan is supported by an NIGMS early stage investigator Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award. These awards provide stable and flexible funding for a program of research that falls within NIGMS’ mission. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Rajan to learn about her research and journey as a scientist.

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It’s Elementary: Celebrating National Chemistry Week

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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!

A square showing helium’s abbreviation (He), atomic number (2), and atomic weight (4.003). Credit: Adapted from Compound Interest. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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.


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Pathways: The Anesthesia Issue

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A magazine cover showing two mushroom-like structures with their wide ends facing each other and small particles between them. Text reads What is this? And what does it have to do with controlling how you feel pain? (Find out inside!). Cover of Pathways student magazine.

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.

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Could a Spoonful of Sugar Be a Medicine?

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A spade-shaped group of cells glowing red, yellow, and green.
Glycans glow red, yellow, and green in this image of a zebrafish embryo’s jaw. Credit: Carolyn Bertozzi, University of California, Berkeley.

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.

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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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