A Dummy’s Guide to Understanding
by Miriam Kauk:
I consider myself a dummy when it comes to Biochemistry. But over the years I have learned a few things that help me read the stuff without my eyes glazing over. Sometimes I can even talk about it and sound relatively intelligent. I am going to tell you a few secrets about how to tackle the stuff.
The first thing to know is that chemists are lazy. And they are uncreative. If they find a new chemical in our bodies, they don’t do what you or I would do and think up a creative name (unlike drug manufacturers who have entire departments whose job is to think up catchy names). The chemists just write a sentence about their chemical. For example they write the sentence “my chemical is a folate molecule with four hydrogens and with a methylene group at the #5 spot and the #10 spot.”But to trick you into thinking that they are smarter than they are, they use Latin as often as they can get away with it. Since “tetra” is Latin for four, they say “tetrahydro” instead of “four hydrogens.” Besides, tetrahydro has a nice ring to it.
And they are really too lazy to put spaces in their sentence, so they say, “mychemicalisafolatemoleculewithfourdydrogensandamethylenegroupatthe#5spotandthe#10spot.” (Don’t skim that, go back and read it out loud; you need the practice to read chemical names.)
But they don’t like to type, so they shorten their sentence to say 5,10-methylenetetrahydrofolate. (With spaces it is “5, 10, methylene Tetra Hydro Folate.”) But then they start getting really lazy and they shorten it even further, dropping the numbers and using initials and they get mTHF. Or they might drop the Latin, and use a number 4 instead of “tetra.” So instead of THF (tetra hydro folate) they write FH4 (folate with 4 hydrogens).
The trick for dummies when we read about biochemistry is to realize that each of these chemical names is really a sentence, and to figure out the sentence. They really aren’t big words at all. They are a sentence without spaces.
Ginger Houston-Ludlam has written a simple explanation of body cycles. I am going to adapt her explanation here and write in chemical names using big words like the chemists do. Many chemicals in the body operate in “cycles.” In other words, if you were to draw what happens to them, it would go in a circle with a number of steps.
- ChemicalAwithChemicalQattached becomes ChemicalAwithoutQ.
- ChemicalAwithoutQ becomes ChemicalBwithoutQ.
- ChemicalBwithoutQ becomes ChemicalBwithChemicalQattached.
- And then ChemicalBwithChemicalQattached becomes ChemicalAwithChemicalQAttached and we are at the beginning of the cycle again. Of course the chemists put these “sentences” in Latin if they can.
If you want to understand how these cycles work, read aloud the process above, and draw a circle with the four chemicals. Abbreviate them. Show AQ going to A. Then A turns into B. Then B turns into BQ. And finally BQ turns back into AQ. You just did what the chemists do. You used abbreviations instead of the long chemical name.
For each step in the cycle there is an enzyme. Enzymes are the matchmakers of the body. They help various chemicals get together. But for every enzyme that is a matchmaker, there is another enzyme that is a divorce lawyer. Breaking up happy couples.
Biochemists are usually fairly consistent in naming enzymes with an “ase” at the end. This “ase” suffix is your flag to tell you that the big word is an enzyme. Chemists are just as uncreative in naming enzymes as they are in naming the other chemicals. Maybe the enzyme’s job is to attach Chemical Q to Chemical A. So they name it “Sticking Q onto A ase.” Of course they leave out the spaces, and they also put the chemical names first and what the enzyme does last, so we see the big word “QontoAstickingase.”In the cycle above there would be four enzymes, one to be the matchmaker or divorce lawyer for each step of the process.
Let’s apply this to a chemical name we hear a lot in Down Syndrome land. SOD. This is an abbreviation for SuperOxideDismutase. See that suffix “ase”? SOD is an enzyme. Now let’s put spaces in the sentence. Super oxide dismut ase. “Super” is Greek for “over, above, much, high-powered.” It is the same Greek root that “hyper” comes from. In Greek it is “huper.” Oxide must have something to do with oxygen. Dismute is a word made entirely from Latin roots. “Dis” is Latin for apart. “Mute” is Latin for change. So superoxidedismutase is an enzyme that takes a high-powered oxygen and breaks it apart. SOD is a divorce lawyer. And in Down Syndrome there is too much SOD.See if you can apply this to our favorite big word MTHFR. Methylenetetrahydrofolatereductase. Put in the spaces. Methylene tetra hydro folate reduct ase. This is an enzyme that “reduces” methylenetetrahydorfolate (mTHF or mFH4 for short.)
by Ginger Houston-Ludlam:
About methylene vs. methyl. There is another category of enzymes. Wife-swappers. MTHFR is a wife-swapper. It rips two hydrogens off a perfectly happy water, and breaks a perfectly happy carbon-nitrogen bond on the methylene-THF. It then attaches those floozy hydrogens to the open bonds on the carbon and the nitrogen. The poor oxygens, left all by themselves, form a support group in pairs. Are you shocked? I know I am! Perhaps we moms with mutated MTHFR genes are really just making a statement of family values by not allowing BobandCarolandTedandAlice-ase to do it’s thing in our bodies!
To be a little more serious, methylene has a CH2 dangling where the CH3 (methyl group) goes on the methyl form. The fourth bond on the carbon is connected to the third bond on a nitrogen hanging close-by. When that C-N bond is broken by the MTHFR, the open bonds are filled with hydrogens from water. The oxygen then pairs up with another loose oxygen to form O2.So, for any of you who have ever wondered why our kids seem to respond so well to music, I think we have our answer. Part of their body is singing The Wipers on the Bus Go Trap, Trap, Trap. Others are singing There’s a Hole in the Bucket, DS-Moms, DS-Moms, and now we have Matchmaker, Matchmaker (or Stand By Your Man if you’re from the south) and Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover (or is it You’re No Good?) What a biochemical racket!!
Once Dr. Marta, who works with Dr. Jill, was telling me that a blood shipment had arrived in good condition, and in that message she told me that Carmen’s lymphocytes were “smiling at her.” I wrote back and said that it must be due to the fact that homocysteine was off partying with CBS instead of doing its job in the SAM cycle. Now we know where the party music is coming from. Do you think the white blood cells have little party hats on?