07 January 2011

Could a bit of toxic gas be good for us?

Colchester Campus

Scientists at the University have won a grant of more than £200,000 to help gain a better understanding of the role toxic gases play in the human body.

They will focus on three gases: nitric oxide (produced by cigarette smoke, car engines and power plants), hydrogen sulfide (present in crude petroleum, natural gas) and carbon monoxide (made in industrial factories and malfunctioning home heating systems).

Although these gases are more usually associated with environmental pollution they have all – surprisingly – been suggested to play a key role in the normal functioning of all animals. Inside the cells of our body low concentrations of these gases are made all the time. Once made these gases can be used to control blood flow and blood pressure as well as being key components of the immune system’s fight against disease.

However, at high concentrations these toxic gases would stop the body’s ability to consume oxygen. What is not clear is how the body manages to make use of these molecules without falling foul of their toxicity.

Thanks to a grant of £208,395 grant from the Leverhulme Trust, Professor Chris Cooper, from the Department of Biological Sciences, will explore the role of three of these toxic gases in detail. In particular he will study their interaction with each other and with oxygen gas, focusing on the mitochondria - the small organelles inside every cell that enable us to use oxygen as a source of energy.

Explaining the project, Professor Cooper said: “Oxygen is at the heart of this story. How do we manage to make use of the oxygen gas in the air we breathe whilst at the same time making other gases that seem to stop it working? This is the riddle that we hope to have solved at the end of the two-year project.”


Ends

Note to Editors
For further information or to interview Professor Chris Cooper please contact the University Communications Office on 01206 872400 or e-mail: comms@essex.ac.uk

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