The Scientific American Blog Network launch last month had some interesting and unintended consequences. Namely, David Kroll observed that despite the advances in diversity in science blogging, there are no pure chemistry bloggers on any of the major science blogging networks, which provoked a round of discussion about who blogs about chemistry, why they do it, and who they're talking to. These conversations (be sure to read the comment sections!) prompted us here at #sciamblogs to organize a network-wide chemistry day in the interest of celebrating the chemistry around us and highlighting just how bloggable chemistry can be. In addition to those of us here on the network who chose to participate, Bora has also invited quite a few prominent chemistry bloggers to post on our Guest Blog throughout the day.
I'd like to start the day off with a discussion about the common misconception that chemistry is all about test tubes filled with colorful liquids (and sometimes it is; as a grad student I worked with cupric acetate, which in solution turns a beautiful and brilliant blue) and boring stuff like p-orbitals (sorry to anyone out there who actually gets jazzed by orbitals), and it can't possibly have anything to do with <insert your field here>. I think this might be a big reason why outsiders don't really notice how ubiquitous chemistry blogging really is.
As I mentioned in my introductory post, I work for the American Chemical Society. (It just so happens that 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, something which the ACS is, understandably, very excited about.) ACS's tagline is "chemistry for life", and our mission includes a commitment to "improving people's lives through the transforming power of chemistry". I find this message particularly apt, because our lives are inextricably linked to chemistry in countless ways that we take for granted every day. To bring the message home, this is a physiology blog, and physiology is not immune to this phenomenon! In fact, it can be a wonderful example of how biologists use chemistry every day without really thinking about it.
Your body runs on chemistry. There's no two ways about it. To bring it down to the molecular level: your body is an aqueous environment. Your cells are merely bags of fluid floating in even more fluid. The movement of various ions and molecules into, out of, and between your cells is what causes almost everything that happens in your body. Here are some molecular approaches to thinking about the biochemistry in some of your favorite science blogs:
Action potentials in your nerve cells are responsible for carrying information to your brain from your sensory systems and sending instructions from your brain back out to your organs and muscles. These action potentials are electrical messages, driven by the movement of sodium and potassium ions (ions... you know, chemicals) into and out of the cell membrane of the neuron axon. Once the signal reaches a synapse, the message is converted to a chemical message in the form of a neurotransmitter, which crosses the synaptic cleft to trigger a new action potential in the next nerve cell down the line. A neurotransmitter is just another tiny molecule with an enormous impact on our well-being. So many essential parts of our being are the result of all of this brain chemistry, from our sensory perceptions and our compulsive desires to our sense of self and perception of others and how we fit into our world.
Our reproductive systems are awash with chemicals as well. What many people know as "hormones" are more accurately called endocrines, which are molecules that can be very similar to neurotransmitters (some neurotransmitters also function as endocrines), but they travel through the blood to impact many parts of the body instead of just the next cell down the line. The classic hormones that many people are familiar with are the sex endocrines such as testosterone and estrogen. Both of these belong to a class of endocrines called steroid endocrines, which are all derivatives of a cholesterol molecule. The results of these endocrines that we can see are the secondary sex characteristics of men and women; endocrines drive the deposition of fat in the breast and hips of women and the building of muscle in men. They also have results that we cannot see but definitely experience; two other endocrines called follicle stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone are responsible for the production of sperm in men and the maintenance of the monthly cycle of women (along with estrogen and progesterone). None of these wonderful (and sometimes not-so-wonderful) things would happen unless we had all these chemicals floating around in our bloodstream.
Speaking of endocrines, melatonin is another chemical that helps drive our circadian rhythms. Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland of the brain in the absence of blue-wavelength light and is part of the feedback system that causes you to feel drowsy when it is dark outside. Your genes run on chemistry also. Gene expression is often the result of converting strings of nucleic acids into proteins made of strings of amino acids, all of which are chemicals! Your cardiopulmonary system is a chemical superhighway! Not only does the blood carry all the endocrines I discussed earlier, but it also carries oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth between the lungs and your body tissues. Carbon dioxide dissolves in the blood plasma to form bicarbonate and hydrogen ions, and the extra hydrogen ions make your venous blood more acidic than your arterial blood. This is very relevant to your well-being, because if you can't get rid of that carbon dioxide at a quick enough pace (for example, if you're working out strenuously and your breathing rate can't keep up with your rate of converting oxygen to carbon dioxide), you develop respiratory acidosis and puke on the sidewalk. Puking causes you to off-load a ton of stomach acid (digestive system chemistry!), which then gives you metabolic alkalosis. Your body's pH is always at a delicate balance, and your circulatory and respiratory systems are at the heart of it all (err, no pun intended).
To make a long story short (too late), chemistry is relevant to all of us earthly beings. As the beloved nerd comic strip xkcd put it so aptly (though not in as many words), life itself is just applied chemistry.
Take some time today to think about the chemistry of your body. Every sensation you perceive, every movement you make, every involuntary action your body performs is the direct result of chemistry. A personal anecdote: The tea I'm drinking right now contains polyphenols that bind to receptors on my tongue, which I perceive as a slightly bitter yet delicious flavor (tea also has a host of antioxidants which many people know for their health benefits, but what they don't know is that antioxidants have the special chemical property of being able to donate an electron freely, which is what causes all those great health effects (part of a phenomenon called redox reactions: more chemistry!)). The information about that flavor travels to my brain through action potentials and neurotransmitters before I ever even perceive it! What are you eating, smelling, playing, feeling, or watching that you are experiencing today through the transformative power of chemistry?