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Usually, we think of mold, feces, nitric oxide, hydrogen sulfide and rat poison as rank, toxic or both. But scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health are learning more about the helpful roles these substances can play.
Bread MoldSlide 2 of 11
If you're a homeowner, mold is definitely a four-letter word. But to scientists, it's a very important organism. The widely used antibiotic penicillin comes from a mold called Penicillium. This mold's bacteria-killing ability was discovered accidentally by Alexander Fleming in 1928 when it drifted in from another lab, landed on Fleming's petri dish and killed the bacteria on it.
Today, Neurosporacrassa — the mold that turns your sandwich bread green — is helping scientists answer questions about how species arise and adapt as well as how cells and tissues change their shapes in different environments. And because it produces spores on a 24-hour cycle, this bread mold is also useful for identifying the molecular timepieces that govern sleep, wakefulness and other rhythms of life.Slide 3 of 11
FecesSlide 4 of 11
Our guts are host to many bacteria, and researchers are analyzing the bacterial colonies in our poop to better understand what they do. Specifically, scientists involved in the NIH-led Human Microbiome Project are using genomic tools to identify these communities in the gut and other hotspots — the nose, mouth, skin and vagina — to learn how they help maintain health or set the stage for disease.
In one study investigating the role of the gut's microorganisms in obesity, researchers obtained stool samples from pairs of female twins who were either both obese or both lean, as well as from their mothers. They found that each individual carries a unique collection of bacteria, but that the communities are more similar among family members. This information will contribute to a rapidly increasing body of knowledge about how microbes influence our physiology and how we might manipulate them to increase their benefit to us.Slide 5 of 11
Nitric OxideSlide 6 of 11
Nitric oxide is a toxic pollutant that we most often smell in car exhaust fumes, but it is critical to our cardiovascular health, brain function and immune system. It transmits signals in most living creatures to help dilate arteries, activate nerve cells and increase the number of white blood cells to kill invading bacteria and parasites. Interestingly, Tibetans living at high elevations — where there's less oxygen in the air — have much more nitric oxide in their blood than do people living closer to sea level. Scientists believe that this extra nitric oxide dilates the Tibetans' blood vessels, increasing blood flow to ensure that sufficient oxygen gets to their tissues. The discovery of nitric oxide's role in the body, particularly the cardiovascular system, netted a Nobel Prize in 1998.Slide 7 of 11
Hydrogen SulfideSlide 8 of 11