Health Tips: Foul Things that Are Also Good For You

You may not be surprised to hear that many substances such as mold, feces, and nitric oxide are toxic. But scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health are learning that these harmful substances may have a role to play in promoting health.

>> Mold: Mold is definitely a four-letter word, yet it is an important organism. Penicillin comes from the mold Penicillium. In addition, Neurospora crassa—the mold that turns sandwich bread orange—helps scientists answer questions about how species arise and adapt as well as how cells and tissues change their shapes in different environments.

>> Feces: Our guts are host to many bacteria, and researchers can analyze the bacterial colonies in our stool to better understand what they do. Scientists involved in the NIH-led Human Microbiome Project are using genomic tools to identify these communities in the gut and other hotspots to learn how they maintain health or set the stage for disease.

>> Nitric Oxide: A toxic pollutant that we most often smell in car exhaust fumes is critical to our cardiovascular health, brain function, and immune system. It transmits signals in most living creatures to help dilate arteries, activate nerve cells, and increase the number of white blood cells to kill invading bacteria and parasites. Interestingly, Tibetans living at high elevations—where there is less oxygen in the air—have much more nitric oxide in their blood than do people living closer to sea level. Scientists believe that this extra nitric oxide dilates the Tibetans’ blood vessels, increasing blood flow to ensure that sufficient oxygen gets to their tissues.

>> Hydrogen Sulfide: We generally associate hydrogen sulfide with the smell of rotting sewage, but some of our body’s cells produce small quantities of this gas and research indicates that this happens when their protein-making factories start churning out bad products. The stinky gas seems to help cells slow down protein production or, if the situation is bad enough, stop production and commit suicide. Since hydrogen sulfide helps enable a proper response, it may play a role in understanding and preventing diseases linked to excess cellular suicide like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

>> Rat Poison: Warfarin, one of the world’s most prescribed medicines, stems from a substance on spoiled sweet clover that caused cattle to mysteriously bleed to death in the 1920s. Shortly afterward, researchers identified the natural anticoagulant chemical. Derivatives were first marketed as rat poisons and later as a new class of drugs, which includes warfarin.