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VAI Voice

The official blog of Van Andel Institute
22 Nov 2021

With Thanksgiving around the corner, we asked metabolism expert Dr. Sara Nowinski three questions

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Quick! What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “metabolism”?

Chances are, you picked something food-related. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, we don’t blame you!

Food plays a major role in metabolism, but it is so much bigger than just what we eat. Think of it as a large, complex and constant cascade of chemical reactions that fuel our bodies, ensuring we have enough energy at the right times and in the right places to meet our needs.

For more, we caught up with metabolism expert and Van Andel Institute Assistant Professor Dr. Sara Nowinski.

Sara Nowinski, Ph.D.

Dr. Sara Nowinski

What’s one thing that people may not realize about metabolism?

Dr. Nowinski: Metabolism is dynamic — our bodies have ways to know whether we just ate Thanksgiving dinner or if we’ve been on a three-day fast, and they change the chemical pathways and fuel sources that they use accordingly. My lab studies how this happens on a molecular level in mitochondria — commonly known as the powerhouses of the cell.

How do cells adapt their metabolism depending on what you just ate?

Dr. Nowinski: On a whole-body level, our gut and our brain “talk” to each other to answer the following questions: Are you hungry? Do you need to eat? Did you overindulge at dinner and now you don’t have room for pie?

This same process happens on the cellular level. The mitochondria, which you can think of as the “gut” of the cell, digest nutrients and turn them into energy. They then must coordinate with the cell nucleus, or its “brains.” My lab studies how that communication happens, along with how mitochondria respond directly in real time.

How is metabolism involved in disease?

Dr. Nowinski: In a lot of diseases where metabolism goes awry, it’s because the feedback, communication and regulatory mechanisms that control metabolism at the cell level go haywire. By better understanding how these control mechanisms work, we hope to develop strategies that could one day lead to therapies to restore proper metabolism to combat disease.

Looking for some fast facts to impress others this Thanksgiving? We have you covered. Check out our list here.