Element of (last) month: A pinch of sodium

In the midst of the blog relaunch, a trip to China last December (which I plan on telling you about in a future post), and the end-of-year holiday period followed by a start-of-year busy period, I didn’t get the chance to write about our December in your element article. This is the first competition winning essay that we’ve published — I think I did mention last year’s essay competition a couple of times.

Margit Muller – PhD student in pharmacology at the University of Copenhagen – highlights how sodium is far from being as mundane as it may seem. Wise daughters from old fairy tales who tell their royal father they love him as much as sodium chloride (they might have said “salt” in the original version) know this, but let’s take a look at the chemistry arguments.

Since its discovery in 1807 by Sir Humphry Davy – who was on a rather impressive element-discovering spree – sodium has amazed chemists. Reports dating back to the 1850s already describe its spectacular reactivity, including its reaction with water that contributes to entice generations of (mischievous) school kids to chemistry according to some Reactions pieces. Among other applications, it is also what makes for pretty yellow flames in fireworks.

Read the article (subscription required) to find out just how crucial sodium is in biological processes, and how essential it is to maintain a good balance of sodium outside and within the cells. Membrane proteins are in charge of controlling specific sodium channels, which let Na+ ions in and out of cell as required and regulate all sorts of processes related to pretty much everything we do, from muscle contraction to neurotransmission. You have been warned, disturbing this sodium influx can have pretty serious consequences! For example, this is just what makes tetrodotoxin from pufferfish (or fugu) — one of the most toxic substances on earth — poisonous…


Anne Pichon (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)