Category: Chemistry, Biochemistry and Pharmacology

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.
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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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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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