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Issue 03

Summer 2019

Smelly sulfur’s surprising secrets

How hydrogen sulfide plays a key role in protecting blood vessel function
Vision Spotlight Smelly sulfur’s surprising secrets

For most of my scientific career I have enjoyed a productive relationship with the element sulfur, which I have found utterly fascinating. Although it probably hasn’t helped my social life… A key component of rotten eggs, sewers and dung heaps, visitors to my lab might want to hold their nose before entering.

Yet despite its potent pong, this interesting element has some surprising functions. The compound hydrogen sulfide plays a key role in protecting blood vessel (vascular) function, which is the main focus of my work. 

Hydrogen sulfide is made in small quantities by blood vessels, especially when oxygen levels are low, helping to maintain blood flow under these conditions. Our research helps understand how blood vessels relax when deprived of oxygen – an important response to help restore blood flow to vital organs.

Durian is a Far Eastern fruit that is so notoriously smelly that it’s banned from hotels and public transport
Michael Garle

Investigating how this works has led me to work with the compound in varying degrees of smelliness, from feeding medical students garlic to studying the impact of durian fruit on blood vessel function. Durian is a Far Eastern fruit that is so notoriously smelly that it’s banned from hotels and public transport. Many of my colleagues love the stuff, although personally I refuse to partake! 

More recently our focus has been on the enzymes involved in hydrogen sulfide synthesis and destruction. One of these, rhodanese, was originally identified as a protein involved in the detoxification of cyanide. We believe it has a much broader antioxidant function and could be particularly helpful in the treatment of patients with kidney failure.

Michael Garle

Michael Garle is a Technician, School of Life Sciences.

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