The success of any endeavor often depends on transportation. Whether it’s passengers moving through airports or little metal balls in a pinball machine, a minor glitch can throw the entire system out of whack. Mayo Clinic physiologist Michael Romero, Ph.D., studies glitches in the world’s smallest transportation system — ion transporters. These specialized proteins move charged atoms in and out of cells. The Romero lab focuses on bicarbonate transporters because they are crucial to maintaining pH balance in cells.
The pH is a measurement of acidity or alkalinity based on the percentage of hydrogen ions in solution. On a scale of 14, where a pH of 7.0 is neutral, anything below 7.0 is acid and above 7.0 is alkaline. Anyone who has ever taken care of a swimming pool knows that if the pH of the water is too low your eyes will sting and if it’s too high algae will start to grow. In the human body the stakes are much higher.
“In a biologic system, if a pH is too high — that’s alkalosis, or too low — that’s acidosis. Either way you die,” Dr. Romero says. “We want to know the nuances and details of the transport system to figure out what’s really going on.”