Category: Chemistry, Biochemistry and Pharmacology

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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Scientist Interview: Exploring the Promise of RNA Switches with Christina Dawn Smolke

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Whether animals are looking for food or mates, or avoiding pathogens and predators, they rely on biosensors—molecules that allow them to sense and respond to their environments. Christina Dawn Smolke, Ph.D. Link to external web site, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University in California, focuses her research on creating new kinds of biosensors to receive, process, and transmit molecular information. Her lab has built RNA molecules, or switches, that can alter gene expression based on biochemical changes they detect.

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Twisting and Turning: Unraveling What Causes Asymmetry

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Note to our Biomedical Beat readers: Echoing the sentiments NIH Director Francis Collins made on his blog, NIGMS is making every effort during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep supporting the best and most powerful science. In that spirit, we’ll continue to bring you stories across a wide range of NIGMS topics. We hope these posts offer a respite from the coronavirus news when needed.

Asymmetry in our bodies plays an important role in how they work, affecting everything from function of internal systems to the placement and shape of organs. Take a look at your hands. They are mirror images of each other, but they’re not identical. No matter how you rotate them or flip them around, they will never be the same. This is an example of chirality, which is a particular type of asymmetry. Something is chiral if it can’t overlap on its mirror image.

An image of a pair of hands, palms facing up. An arrow points to another image of the left hand on top of the right, both palms still facing up, illustrating that they can’t be superimposed. Our hands are chiral: They’re mirror images but aren’t identical.

Scientists are exploring the role of chirality and other types of asymmetry in early embryonic development. Understanding this relationship during normal development is important for figuring out how it sometimes goes wrong, leading to birth defects and other medical problems.

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The Chemistry of Chocolate

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Chocolate is a Valentine’s Day must-have and popular among people with a sweet tooth. Many also claim it lifts mood or even acts as an aphrodisiac, and we’ve all heard someone say it’s habit forming.

The compounds in chocolate that allegedly have positive effects come from the cacao bean, so the darker the chocolate, the more of these compounds it contains. Milk chocolate has less than dark chocolate, and white chocolate has nearly none because it includes no cocoa solids, only cocoa butter.

An infographic showing dark chocolate paired with the chemical structures of theobromine and phenethylamine, milk chocolate paired with vanillin and butyric acid, and white chocolate paired with stearic acid and palmitic acid. Chocolate contains upwards of 800 chemical compounds, just a handful of which are explored in this infographic. See more chemistry infographics like this one in C&EN’s Periodic Graphics collection Link to external web site. Click to enlarge

Does science back up the common claims about chocolate? To find the answers, we’re taking a look at the chemistry behind this treat.

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Fabulous Fats in Your Holiday Feast

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Happy Thanksgiving!

During this time of year, family and friends gather to enjoy rich foods and good company. Even if you typically follow a healthy diet, it can be hard to make wholesome food choices during occasions like these.

Our previous post, Five Fabulous Fats, highlighted essential fats made in our bodies. Here we discuss five important fats our bodies can’t make on their own, the foods that contain them, and why you should include a healthy dose of each in your diet.

Geranial

Whole and sliced lemons, two jars of lemon oil, and lemon leaves on a wooden table.
Credit: iStock.

Geranial, a fat some people may not know about, is present in the oils of several citrus plants such as orange, lemon, and lime. Research suggests that its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties reduce inflammation in the body. So, think about adding some freshly squeezed lemonade to the menu.

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Five Fabulous Fats

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Happy Fat Tuesday!

On this day, celebrated in many countries with lavish parties and high-fat foods, we’re recognizing the importance of fats in the body.

You’ve probably heard about different types of fat, such as saturated, trans, monounsaturated, omega-3, and omega-6. But fats aren’t just ingredients in food. Along with similar molecules, they fall under the broad term lipids and serve critical roles in the body. Lipids protect your vital organs. They help cells communicate. They launch chemical reactions needed for growth, immune function, and reproduction. They serve as the building blocks of your sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone).

Here we feature five of the hundreds of lipids that are essential to health.

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