Category: Chemistry, Biochemistry and Pharmacology

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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Americans Fighting the Opioid Crisis in Their Own Backyards

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Heat maps of the U.S. for 2003 through 2014, showing overdose deaths per 100,000. The heat maps illustrate significant increase of deaths over the years, with deaths concentrated in western U.S. and parts of eastern U.S.

Credit: New York Times article, Jan. 19, 2016.

The United States is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. The rates of opioid addiction, babies born addicted to opioids, and overdoses have skyrocketed in the past decade. No population has been hit harder than rural communities. Many of these communities are in states with historically low levels of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIGMS’ Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program builds research capacities in these states by supporting basic, clinical, and translational research, as well as faculty development and infrastructure improvements. IDeA-funded programs in many states have begun prioritizing research focused on reducing the burden of opioid addiction. Below is a snapshot of three of these programs, and how they are working to help their communities:

Vermont Center on Behavior and HealthLink to external web site

Because there are generally fewer treatment resources in rural areas compared to larger cities, it can take longer for people addicted to opioids in rural settings to get the care they need. The Vermont Center on Behavior and Health works to address this need and its major implications.

“One very disconcerting trend we’re seeing with this recent crisis is that opioid-addicted individuals are being placed on wait lists lasting months to a year without any kind of treatment,” says Vermont Center on Behavior and Health director Stephen Higgins. “And it’s very unlikely that anyone who is opioid addicted is just going to abstain while they are on a wait list.”

In urban areas, buprenorphine—an approved medication for opioid addiction that can prevent or reduce withdrawal symptoms—is generally dispensed by trained physicians at treatment clinics. Unfortunately, many rural communities don’t have enough physicians and clinics to serve patients in need. While waiting for treatment, patients are at risk of premature death, overdose, and contracting diseases such as HIV.

Stacey Sigmon, a faculty member in the Vermont Center on Behavior Health, has developed a method to help tackle this problem: a modified version of a tamper-proof device that delivers daily doses of buprenorphine. The advantage of using the modified device is that it makes each day’s dose available during a preprogrammed 3-hour window within the patient’s home, eliminating the need to visit a clinic.

During a study, participants in the treatment group received interim buprenorphine from the device. They also received daily calls to assess drug use, craving, and withdrawal. Participants in the control group didn’t receive buprenorphine. They remained on the waiting list of their local clinic and didn’t receive phone calls. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), indicate that the device works. Participants who received the interim buprenorphine treatment submitted a higher percentage of drug test specimens that were negative for opioids than those in the control group at 4 weeks (88 percent vs. 0 percent), 8 weeks (84 percent vs. 0 percent), and 12 weeks (68 percent vs. 0 percent). Sigmon and colleagues are currently testing the device with a much larger group of participants.

“This tool is now available to other rural states that are also being devastated by this crisis and are not so far along in beefing up treatment capacity,” says Higgins.

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Taking the Guesswork Out of Pain Management

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How do you measure pain? A patient’s furrowed brow, a child’s cries or tears—all are signs of pain. But what if the patient suffers from severe dementia and can’t describe what she is feeling or is a young child who can’t yet talk? Caregivers can help read the signs of pain, but their interpretations may differ greatly from patient to patient, because people have different ways of showing discomfort. And when the patient is unconscious, such as during surgery or while in intensive care, the caregiving team has even fewer ways to measure pain.

Assessing pain is an inexact science. It includes both subjective and objective measures. A patient might be asked during a subjective assessment (performed, perhaps, with a caregiver showing a pain-rating scale such as the one in the figure), “How much pain are you feeling today?” That feedback is coupled with biological markers such as an increased heart rate, dilated pupils, sweating, and inflammation as well as blood tests to monitor high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Combined, these measurements can give doctors a fairly clear picture of how much pain a patient feels.

Pain scale--0 for no hurt to 10 for hurts worst. Patients can point to one of the faces on this subjective pain scale to show caregivers the level of pain they are experiencing. Credit: Wong-Baker Faces Foundation.

But imagine if members of the surgical or caregiving team could actually “see” how the patient is feeling? Such insight would let them select better drugs to use during and after surgery, tailoring care to each patient. That tool could be put into service in the operating room and by the bedside in intensive care, giving nonstop reports of pain as the patient experiences it.

An objective measure of pain also has uses beyond the operating room and intensive care unit. Given the high risk for opioid misuse, such a measure could take the guesswork out of pain management and give doctors a more accurate indication of pain levels to prevent over-prescribing opioid pain relievers.

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Fall 2017 Issue of Findings Magazine

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It’s back! Check out the new issue of Findings magazine.

Findings Magazine Cover for Fall 2017.Findings presents cutting-edge research from scientists in diverse biomedical fields. The articles are aimed at high school students with the goal of making science—and the people who do it—interesting and exciting, and to inspire young readers to pursue careers in biomedical research. In addition to putting a face on science, Findings offers activities such as quizzes and crossword puzzles and, in its online version, video interviews with scientists.

The Fall 2017 issue profiles Yale University biologist Enrique De La Cruz, who studies how actin—a protein chain that supports cell structure—breaks so easily. Also profiled is University of California, Berkeley, biologist Rebecca Heald and her study of developmental factors that control an animal’s size.

This issue also features:

  • A virtual reality program designed to help burn patients manage pain
  • The promise of gene therapy for glaucoma
  • The many ways scientists categorize the biological world using “omics”
  • What researchers know—and don’t know—about how general anesthetics work
  • How animation helps researchers visualize interactions between biological molecules
  • How cells use sugary outer coatings to distinguish friend from foe
  • What makes our tissues stiff, squishy, solid, or see-through (hint: its initials are ECM)
  • How super-powerful microscopes are revealing views of biology never possible before

View Findings online, or order a print copy (classroom sets of up to 30 copies are available for educators).

Happy Birthday, BioBeat

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This month, our blog that highlights NIGMS-funded research turns four years old! For each candle, we thought we’d illuminate an aspect of the blog to offer you, our reader, an insider’s view.

Who are we?

Over the years, the editorial team has included onsite science writers, office interns, staff scientists and guest authors from universities. Kathryn, who’s a regular contributor, writes entirely from her home office. Chris, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and now manages the blog, used to do research in a lab. Alisa has worked in NIGMS’ Bethesda-based office the longest: 22 years! She and I remember when we first launched Biomedical Beat as an e-newsletter in 2005. You can read more about each of the writers on the contributors page and if you know someone who’s considering a career in science communications, tell them to drop us a line.

How do we come up with the stories?

We get our story ideas from a range of sources. For instance, newspaper articles about an experimental pest control strategy in Florida and California prompted us to write about NIGMS-funded studies exploring the basic science of the technique. A beautiful visual from a grantee’s institution inspired a short post on tissue regeneration research. And an ongoing conversation with NIGMS scientific staff about the important role of research organisms in biological studies sparked the idea for a playful profile of one such science superstar.

A big change in our storytelling has been shifting the focus from a single finding to broader progress in a lab or field. So instead of reporting on a study just published in a scientific journal, we may write about the scientist’s career path or showcase a collection of recent findings in that particular field. These approaches help us demonstrate that scientific understanding usually progresses through the slow and steady work undertaken by many labs.

What are our favorite posts?

I polled the writers on posts they liked, and the list is really long! Here are the top picks.


Four Ways Inheritance Is More Complex Than Mendel Knew


The Endoplasmic Reticulum: Networking in the Cell


Interview With a Scientist: Janet Iwasa, Molecular Animator


From Basic Research to Bioelectric Medicine


An Insider’s Look at Life: Magnified, an Airport Exhibit of Stunning Microscopy Images

What are your favorite posts?

We regularly review data about the number of times a blog post has been viewed to identify the ones that interest readers the most. That information also helps guide our decisions about other topics to feature on the blog. The Cool Image posts are among the most popular! Below are some other chart-topping posts.


Our Complicated Relationship With Viruses


The Proteasome: The Cells Trash Processor in Action


Demystifying General Anesthetics


Meet Sarkis Mazmanian and the Bacteria That Keep Us Healthy


5 Reasons Biologists Love Math

We always like hearing from readers! If there’s a basic biomedical research topic you’d like us to write about, or if you have feedback on a story or the blog in general, please leave your suggestions in the comment field below or email me.

Chasing Fireflies—and Better Cellular Imaging Techniques

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firefly
Firefly. Credit: Stock photo.

The yellow-green glow from this summer’s fireflies teased my kids across the yard. Max and Stella zigzagged the grass, occasionally jumping into the air to cup a firefly in their hands and then proudly shouting, “I got one!”

Chasing fireflies on a summer night is a childhood rite of passage for many, including Nathan Shaner who grew up in New Jersey. “It was one of my favorite things about summer,” he recalls. “I’d catch them with my hands—I’d never jar them.”

Today, Shaner studies the science of bioluminescence, which gives fireflies and many other organisms the natural ability to emit light. His goal is to make bright bioluminescent tags that he and other scientists can use to study living cells in greater detail. “There’s this very beautiful thing that evolved in nature, and we can use it to enable new discoveries,” he says.

Thousands of organisms glow as a way to communicate, spook predators, lure prey or attract mates. There are a few terrestrial examples, such as fireflies, glowworm insect larvae and foxfire fungi, and many more aquatic ones, including types of marine plankton, fish, jellyfish, shrimp, squid and sea urchins. One research team estimated nearly three quarters of sea life have bioluminescent capabilities.

Bioluminescence is common across the tree of life (left to right): Panellus Stipticus (foxfire fungi); Lampryis noctiluca (glowworm insect); Aurelia Aurita (moon jellyfish). Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ylem; Wikimedia Commons, Wofl; stock photo.

Every studied case of bioluminescence involves oxygen, a light-emitting pigment called luciferin and a protein called luciferase. Luciferase encourages the pigment’s reaction with oxygen, releasing energy in the form of light. Although many bioluminescent creatures have their own form of luciferase, they share just a handful of luciferins. For example, the luciferin called coelenterazine is found in many aquatic organisms.

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