Category: Molecular Structures

Motor Proteins and Microscopy: Q&A With Morgan DeSantis

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A portrait image of Dr. Morgan DeSantis.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Morgan DeSantis.

“I remember thinking in my first cellular biology class how impossibly beautiful it is that there are tiny machines in our bodies doing work,” says Morgan DeSantis, Ph.D., an assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. We talked with Dr. DeSantis about how her career in science almost didn’t happen, how happy she is that it did, and what she’s learning through her research on molecular machines.

Q: How did you become interested in science?

A: I wasn’t remotely interested in science in high school—I was a self-identified artist. I went to the College of Wooster in Ohio with the sole purpose of studying art and doing pottery. But one day during my freshman year, a box with all the pieces I made throughout the year fell, and everything inside broke. It’s hard to describe the emotions I felt that day, but something changed in me, and I realized pottery wasn’t for me. I couldn’t start the projects over, and I didn’t want to drop out and move back home. So, I decided to become a medical doctor.

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Cool Images: Radiant in Red

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Happy Valentine’s Day! In place of red roses, we hope you’ll accept a bouquet of beautiful scientific images featuring rich, red hues. Be sure to click all the way through to see the festive protein flowing through your blood!

For more scientific photos, illustrations, and videos in all the colors of the rainbow, visit our image and video gallery.

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Copper Keeps Us Going

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Copper pipes, copper wires, copper…food? Copper is not only a useful metal for conducting electricity, but it’s also an essential element we need in our bodies for a variety of important activities—from metabolizing iron to pigmenting skin.

A graphic showing copper’s symbol Cu, atomic number 29, and atomic weight 63.546, all connected by lines to illustrations of the Statue of Liberty, a lightning bolt labeled “conductor,” and a crab labeled “blue blood.” New York’s Statue of Liberty is coated in 80 tons of copper, and oxidation causes its green color. Copper is an excellent conductor of electricity. It’s used in wiring, electronics, and lightning conductors. Crustaceans use copper complexes to transport oxygen in their blood, giving it a blue color. Across the bottom is the logo for the Royal Society of Chemistry celebrating IYPT 2019, the Compound Interest logo, and #IYPT2019. Copper is required to keep your body going. Enzymes that use copper are called cuproenzymes, and they catalyze a wide range of reactions, including making neurotransmitters and connective tissue. The element is found on the Statue of Liberty’s covering, in wiring and electronics, and in the blue blood of crustaceans. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
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Pump Up the Potassium

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The element potassium plays a pivotal role in our bodies. It’s found in all our cells, where it regulates their volume and pressure. To do this, our bodies carefully control potassium levels so that the concentration is about 30 times higher inside cells than outside. Potassium works closely with sodium, which regulates the extracellular fluid volume and has a higher concentration outside cells than inside. These concentration differences create an electrochemical gradient, or a membrane potential.

A graphic showing potassium’s symbol K, atomic number 19, and atomic weight 39.098 connected by lines to illustrations of soap, a nerve cell, and a banana. Potassium hydroxide is used to make liquid soaps. Potassium compounds are also used in fertilizers. In humans, potassium ions regulate blood pressure and transmission of nerve impulses. The potassium-40 isotope causes low level radioactivity in bananas and in humans and animals. Across the bottom of the graphic is the logo for the Royal Society of Chemistry celebrating IYPT 2019, the Compound Interest logo, and #IYPT2019. Potassium is the primary regulator of the pressure and volume inside cells, and it’s important for nerve transmission, muscle contraction, and more. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
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Science Snippet: The Power of Proteins

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Some might think that protein is only important for weightlifters. In truth, all life relies on the activity of protein molecules. A single human cell contains thousands of different proteins with diverse roles, including:

A dense network of blue, green, yellow, and red weblike structures along a border of a cell.
Actin proteins in a cell’s cytoskeleton. Credit: Xiaowei Zhuang, HHMI, Harvard University, and Nature Publishing Group.
  • Providing structure. Proteins such as actin make up the three-dimensional cytoskeleton that gives cells structure and determines their shapes.
  • Aiding chemical reactions. Many proteins are biological catalysts called enzymes that speed up the rate of chemical reactions by reducing the amount of energy needed for the reactions to proceed. For example, lactase is an enzyme that breaks down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Those with lactose intolerance don’t produce enough lactase to digest dairy.
  • Supporting communication. Some proteins act as chemical messengers between cells. For example, cytokines are the protein messengers of the immune system and can increase or decrease the intensity of an immune response.
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Manganese: The Magical Element?

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The element manganese is essential for human life. It’s aptly named after the Greek word for magic, and some mysteries surrounding its role in the body still exist today—like how our bodies absorb it, if very high or low levels can cause illness, or how it might play a role in certain diseases.

A graphic showing manganese’s symbol Mn, atomic number 25, and atomic weight 54.938 connected by lines to illustrations of steel railways, a bone, and a drinking can. Manganese steel contains ~13 percent manganese. It’s very strong and used for railways, safes, and prison bars. Manganese is essential for organisms. It’s needed for strong bones, and many enzymes also contain it. Drink cans are made with an alloy of aluminum and manganese, which helps prevent corrosion. Across the bottom of the graphic are the logo for the Royal Society of Chemistry celebrating IYPT 2019, the Compound Interest logo, and #IYPT2019. Manganese is necessary for metabolism, bone formation, antioxidation, and many other important functions in the body. The element is found in strong steel, bones and enzymes, and drink cans. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
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Slideshow: Circles of Life

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Every year on March 14, many people eat pie in honor of Pi Day. Mathematically speaking, pi (π) is the ratio of a circle’s circumference (the distance around the outside) to its diameter (the length from one side of the circle to the other, straight through the center). That means if you divide the circumference of any circle by its diameter, the solution will always be pi, which is roughly 3.14—hence March 14, or 3/14. But pi is an irrational number, which means that the numbers after the decimal point never end. With the help of computers, mathematicians have determined trillions of digits of pi.

To celebrate Pi Day, check out this slideshow of circular microbes, research organisms, and laboratory tools (while you enjoy your pie, of course!). To explore more scientific photos, videos, and illustrations, visit our image and video gallery.

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Got Calcium?

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Someone’s hand moving to scroll through this blog post is possible because of a mineral that both gives bones their strength and allows muscles to move: calcium. As the most abundant mineral in our bodies, it’s essential for lots of important functions. It’s found in many foods, medicines, and dietary supplements.

A graphic showing calcium’s symbol “Ca”, atomic number, and atomic weight connected by lines to illustrations of teeth and bones, cheese, and a cement-mixing truck (calcium carbonate is used in construction). Calcium keeps your bones strong, allows your muscles to move, and is important for many other bodily functions. The element is found in foods, medicines, and the world around us. Credit: Compound Interest CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge.
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