In 2010, with my colleagues at the University of Technology, Sydney and Washington State University (Go Cougars!), I looked into how former workers in the nuclear weapons manufacturing industry had an extra consideration when it came to safety on the job: these folks, every day, were handling some of the most dangerous materials on the planet: plutonium, uranium and all the other nasties used to build atomic weapons. Like any other laboratory job, there was always the risk of workplace incidents, but factor in radioactive materials that have a half-life of over 700 million years, and the consequences of a knocked-over beaker become even more dire.
In this study, we looked at 4 individuals who each worked in nuclear weapons plants at the height of the Cold War, a time when the global nuclear weapons stockpile numbered 31,225 individual warheads, enough to incinerate the world’s surface several times over. Each person, who was part of the United States Transuranium and Uranium Registries, was involved in what was considered a ‘minor’ exposure arising from a workplace incident. The USTUR, which is charged with studying the health of workers in the weapon manufacturing (and now decommissioning, as the world’s stockpile slowly reduces) industry, collected tissue from these participants after their passing, which, amazingly, were all the consequence of health issues separate to radiation. You can read about their stories after the jump.
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February 28th would have been the 113th birthday of Linus Pauling, one of the 20th century’s most noted visionaries, not only in science, but in all of society. Perhaps best thought of as the Richard Feynman of biology, Pauling’s work resulted in two Nobel prizes; one for chemistry in 1954 “for his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances”; and another for peace in 1962 for his efforts to limit nuclear testing in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis and seemingly eternal brinkmanship.
Our fascination with Pauling comes from perhaps his more controversial work: the importance of vitamins and minerals in maintaining good health. While some of Pauling’s theories, such as treating cancer with high doses of vitamin C, are certainly controversial, you cannot deny the massive impact he had on brining attention to the importance of low-level nutrients, including metals, have in the body.
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We’ve just published new work in Chemical Science about how the chemistry of two essential ingredients of our brain stew may be at the very heart of Parkinson’s disease pathology.
Iron and dopamine are both necessary for healthy brain function, but are highly reactive when they come in close chemical proximity. Iron is present in every cell in the brain, yet dopamine is usually confined to a select few types of neurons, where it acts as the primary neurotransmitter in a number of systems, including movement, reward and learning. In Parkinson’s disease, neurons producing dopamine in the nigrostriatal, or motor pathway, degenerate, whilst the adjacent neurons of the mesolimbic (thought to be the ‘reward’ pathway) do not. We found that the region of the brain damaged in Parkinson’s disease naturally has a high iron and dopamine content, and that this balance can reach a ‘tipping point’ when we apply a toxin mimicking Parkinson’s.
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Around 98% of the human body is made up of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen.
This blog is dedicated to the other 2%.
Ferrum (Latin for metal) blogger is run by a group of researchers from Australia who study the roles this 2% play in the body (most of which are metals), and why they are so important to both good health and disease. Of the 28 biologically-relevant elements of the periodic table, most exist in what scientists previously described as ‘trace’ levels, though this almost-dismissive label is being shed as we learn more and more about how our cells harness the unique chemistry of the building blocks of, well, everything.
Ferrumvita blog tracks and profiles the newest research in metallobiology and all the fields of science its associated with, including the work coming from our team. We also retrospectively examine the groundbreaking discoveries that have helped bring us to this new and exciting era of discovery.
Stick around. See what irons we have in the fire.