It’s one of the most fundamental processes that keeps us alive, but scientists have only just discovered the exact way that our blood transports oxygen from the air we breathe to the cells of our body.
The research, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used the huge processing powers of the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre (BSC) in Spain to find the molecular mechanisms that allow our blood to absorb and transport the maximum amount of oxygen at any one time.
Oxygen is transported in our blood by a protein called haemoglobin, found principally in red blood cells. The team of researchers, led by Víctor Guallar at the BSC, wanted to know the way the structure of haemoglobin changes when it binds to oxygen in the lungs, and when it transfers the oxygen to tissue in the body.
Faults in this process can lead to problems like anaemia, but until now it has not been possible to understand the exact way in which mutations affect oxygen uptake, which has limited the efficacy of drugs used to treat these disorders.
However, the team used sophisticated atomic calculations to create realistic simulations of the processes involved, giving a better understanding than has previously been possible. Oxygen can bind to many different parts of the haemoglobin molecule at one time, and the research has shown how the way the different sites interact with one another.
Raúl Alcantara, an author of the paper, said: ‘Having access to the enormous calculation capacity of the MaresNostrum supercomputer allows more precise simulations, which are closer to what happens in real life.’