“We scientists know very little of what can be known—I find that invigorating,” says Dylan Burnette, Ph.D., an associate professor of cell and developmental biology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. “Most people find it exhausting, but I’m comfortable with not knowing all of biology’s secrets.” In an interview, Dr. Burnette shared his lab’s work on muscle cells, the knowledge he hopes readers take away from his research, and some advice to future scientists about being comfortable being wrong.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: Unlike with other subjects (it took me a long time to learn how to read), I excelled at science. In third-grade science class, I knew every answer on the tests. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I did well because I found it interesting. I decided I wanted to become a medical doctor that year. Back then, doctors were the only type of person who I thought did any type of science.
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 metabolizingiron to pigmenting skin.
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.
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.
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.
Although Dr. Santiago-Frangos wanted to become a scientist from a young age and always found biology interesting, by the time he was attending high school in his native country of Cyprus, he had developed a passion for physics and thought he’d pursue a career in that field. However, working at a biotechnology company for a summer changed his mind. “That experience made me want to dive into biology more deeply because I could see how it could be directly applied to human health. Physics can also be applied to human health, but, at least at that time, biology seemed to me like a more direct way to help humanity,” says Dr. Santiago-Frangos.
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:
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.
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.
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.
To make naturally colorless biological structures easier to study, scientists often use fluorescent tags and other tools to color them. Here, we feature images with purple hues and pair them with questions to test your knowledge of basic science concepts.
Visit our image and video gallery for more scientific photos, illustrations, and videos in all the colors of the rainbow.
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.
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.
You may know that antioxidants can help protect your cells from oxidative damage, but do you know about selenium—an element often found in special proteins called antioxidant enzymes? Selenium is essential to your body, which means you must get it from the food you eat. But it’s a trace element so you only need a small amount to benefit from its effects. In addition to its antioxidant properties, it’s also important for reproduction, DNA synthesis, and hormonemetabolism.
Just as electricity powers almost every modern gadget, the tiny moleculeadenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the major source of energy for organisms’ biochemical reactions. ATP stores energy in the chemical bonds that hold its three phosphate groups together—the triphosphate part of its name. In the human body, ATP powers processes such as cell signaling, muscle contraction, nerve firing, and DNA and RNA synthesis. Because our cells are constantly using and producing ATP, each of us turns over roughly our body weight in the molecule every day!
Our bodies can produce ATP in several ways, but the most common is cellular respiration—a multistep process in which glucose molecules from our diet and oxygen react to form water and carbon dioxide. The breakdown of a single molecule of glucose in this way releases energy, which the body captures and stores in around 32 ATP molecules. Along with oxygen, mitochondria are crucial for producing ATP through cellular respiration, which is why they’re sometimes called the powerhouses of cells.