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Chemistry for a Healthier World

Chemists want to understand how biology works so they can manipulate it. Inventing environmentally friendly approaches that make chemical reactions more efficient and produce minimal toxic byproducts is an important goal of modern chemistry.

Whether inside the body or in the lab, all chemical reactions do the same thing. They convert starting materials, or reactants, into products. Catalysts make these reactions go faster.

Made for Speed

A catalyst works by providing a route for the reaction pathway to make its product using less energy.

Image of a gas pump showing biodiesel costing less than conventional diesel. Credit: Bob Tubbs, Wikimedia Commons
In some countries, biodiesel is less expensive than conventional diesel. Credit: Bob Tubbs, Wikimedia Commons

Catalysts are facilitators—they are not used up in the reaction and can be recycled. Researchers are continually looking for catalysts that are more efficient and friendlier to the environment. Such catalysts are an important aspect of "green chemistry."

One recent advance in this area is the development of "click chemistry," which allows chemists to tailor reactions very precisely. Thus, they can generate substances quickly and reliably. Click chemistry also produces fewer byproducts—some of which can be hazardous—and less waste.

Harnessing biology's magic through chemistry underlies the field of biotechnology—the use of biological systems or living organisms to make useful products and processes. Biotechnology has applications in a wide range of areas that benefit the United States and the world.

Taking advantage of microbes' innovative metabolism and defense mechanisms can help us preserve our environment, as well. This is the case for methane, the main component of natural gas that is used in industrial chemical processes and is second only to carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. In the United States, the most significant sources of methane gas are landfills and agricultural livestock manure.

Methane is chemically inert, meaning it does not break down easily. But for some bacteria that live in extreme environments like hot springs, chewing up methane is a way of life. Understanding how enzymes in these bacteria convert methane into methanol and water could possibly spur more efficient use of the world's supply of natural gas.

Metals: Good, Bad or Ugly?

Some chemists study the role of metal-containing molecules in biological systems. Many processes in our bodies—like respiration and reproduction—depend on metals like iron, zinc and copper.

Iron, for instance, helps the protein hemoglobin transport oxygen to organs throughout the body. Many metals act to stabilize the shapes of enzymes.

But handling metals is a tricky business. Since metals are elements, the building blocks of all chemical compounds, they are already in their simplest form and our bodies cannot break them down.

Thus, our bodies take great care to make sure metals go only where they need to go, and in exactly the proper amount. In many cases that means one or two atoms in an individual cell. That's in contrast to thousands to millions of proteins or other molecules.

Illustration of methane being converted into methanol, producing water as a byproduct
The enzyme methane monooxygenase converts methane into methanol, producing water as a byproduct. Methanol is a liquid that can be transported much more easily than methane, a gas that is harder to keep contained.

Some toxic metals aren't good in any amount. They can poison important enzymes, preventing them from doing their jobs of keeping the body healthy. Lead from the environment, for instance, can mess up the body's synthesis of a vital component of hemoglobin called heme, disabling the blood's oxygen transport system.

Certain forms of mercury can be deadly, causing irreversible damage in the brain. Other dangerous metals, such as arsenic, cause cancer in the skin and lungs. Recently, scientists discovered single-celled algae that thrive in Yellowstone National Park hot springs and chemically change arsenic to make it less hazardous. Such natural cleansers may find use in reclaiming mine waste or creating safer foods and herbicides.

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Tox Docs

Scientists are working to eliminate these and other harmful substances from the environment and also to detect and reduce human exposure to such substances. The medical researchers who study the harmful effects of chemicals on living organisms are called toxicologists.

Metals in Health and Disease

METAL (Chemical Symbol Link to external Website) WHERE IS IT? WHAT DOES IT DO? HOW DO I GET IT?
"Healthy" Metals
Iron (Fe) Binds to enzymes throughout the body (e.g., hemoglobin, nitric oxide synthase) Helps body transport oxygen and certain chemical messengers Meats (highest in beef, pork, liver), baked or lima beans, molasses, spinach
Copper (Cu) Binds to enzymes throughout the body (e.g., superoxide dismutase) Defends body against damage from free radicals Shellfish (crab, lobster), dried beans, nuts
Zinc (Zn) Binds to enzymes throughout the body, to DNA, and to some hormones (e.g., insulin) Plays role in sexual maturation and regulation of hormones, helps some proteins stick tightly to DNA Shellfish (oysters), chick peas, baked beans, whole grains, nuts
Sodium (Na)
Potassium (K)
Throughout the body (Na outside cells, K inside cells) Helps communicate electrical signals in nerves, heart Na: Table salt and baking soda
K: Bananas, oranges, avocados
Calcium (Ca) Bones, muscle Muscle and nerve function; blood clotting Dairy products, broccoli, figs, sardines
Cobalt (Co) Forms the core of vitamin B12 Necessary ingredient for making red blood cells Meats, dairy products, leafy green vegetables
"Unhealthy" Metals
Arsenic (As) Rocks, soil Can cause cancer, death Toxic
Lead (Pb) Old paint (before 1973) Can cause cancer, neurological damage, death Toxic
Mercury (Hg) Contaminated fish (especially from the Great Lakes region of the United States) Binds to sulfur-containing molecules in organelles; can cause neurological damage, death Toxic


Photograph of crime evidence
Some chemists help solve crimes.

Some scientists in this field focus on forensics, combining toxicology, chemistry, pharmacology and medicine to help criminal investigations of death, poisoning and drug use.

These researchers record symptoms reported by a victim as well as any evidence collected that could narrow the search for a perpetrator.

This evidence could include pill bottles, powders and trace residues of chemicals.

Since it is rare for a chemical to remain in its original form after being ingested, toxicologists rely on a solid understanding of metabolism and of chemical reactions to get the job done right.


This page last reviewed on April 22, 2011