Tag: Cellular Processes

What Is Metabolism?

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Lactase shown as a clumped, oblong mass of purple, magenta, orange, and green.
Beta-galactosidase, also known as lactase, a metabolic enzyme that breaks down the sugar lactose. Credit: PDB 6DRV.

You’ve likely heard someone attribute their body size to a fast or slow metabolism. But did you know there’s much more to metabolism than calories burned? Metabolism includes all the chemical changes that occur as our bodies use enzymes to break down food, medicines, and biological substances as well as produce energy and materials needed for growth.

The Two Sides of Metabolism

Our bodies have many metabolic pathways, but they all fall into two main categories: catabolic and anabolic. Catabolic pathways break down complex molecules into simpler ones, usually releasing energy in the process. For example, catabolic pathways turn large carbohydrate molecules from our food into simple sugars, such as glucose. Some of the most well-known catabolic pathways then convert the simple sugar glucose into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule that cells commonly use as an energy source.

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Investigating the Primary Cilium: Q&A With Xuecai Ge

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A headshot of Dr. Xuecai Ge.
Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Xuecai Ge.

The brain is a large and complex organ, but some very small structures guide its development. Xuecai Ge, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Merced (UC Merced), has devoted her career to understanding one of these structures called the primary cilium. In an interview, Dr. Ge shared how her childhood experience inspired her to study science and what makes the primary cilium fascinating.

Q: How did you first become interested in science?

A: When I was a little kid, my mom was a primary care doctor, and I saw her treat patients in our community. I noticed that no matter who got a particular illness, she could use the same medicine to treat them. My little mind was amazed that the same medicine could work for so many different people! I think this early experience planted the original seed of my interest in life science.

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Science Snippet: Examining Enzymes

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An enzyme shown as a connected complex of colored ribbons and flat sheets.
Structure of a pyruvate kinase, an enzyme that adds a phosphate group to adenosine diphosphate (ADP) to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Credit: PDB 7UEH.

Every day, our cells must produce all the various molecules they need to stay alive. But the chemical reactions to create these molecules can’t occur without help—which is where enzymes come in. Enzymes are biological catalysts, meaning they speed up the rate of specific chemical reactions by reducing the amount of energy needed for the reaction to occur. Most enzymes are proteins, but some RNA molecules can also act as enzymes.

Thousands of different enzymes catalyze the vast range of reactions that take place within cells, but each enzyme typically supports one of the following types of tasks:

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Why Do Cells Die?

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You might know that tiny individual units called cells make up your body. But did you know some of your cells die every day as a part of their normal life cycle? These deaths are balanced by other cells splitting into two identical cells, a process called mitosis.

Two purple- and orange-speckled ovals (cells). The bottom left cell shrinks and becomes several bright yellow circles. The top right cell morphs into thick, bright yellow strands that align along the center of the cell and then pull apart into two new cells.
A confocal microscope films two cells: The cell on the left undergoes a type of cell death called apoptosis, and the one on the right undergoes mitosis. Credit: Dr. Dylan Burnette, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
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Q&A With Dylan Burnette: Muscle Cells, Cell Movement, and Microscopy

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A headshot of Dr. Dylan Burnette.
Courtesy of Dr. Dylan Burnette.

“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.

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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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Investigating Bacteria’s CRISPR Defense System to Improve Human Health

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A headshot of Dr. Andrew Santiago-Frangos.
Credit: Adrian Sanchez Gonzales.

The earliest Andrew Santiago-Frangos, Ph.D., remembers being interested in science was when he was about 8 years old. He was home sick and became engrossed in a children’s book that explained how some bacteria and viruses cause illness. To this day, his curiosity about bacteria persists, and he’s making discoveries about CRISPR—a system that helps bacteria defend against viruses—as a postdoctoral researcher and NIGMS-funded Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) scholar at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman.

Becoming a Biologist

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.

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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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