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Mucus: Outtakes on a molecule of major significance

Researchers are making connections between the role of mucus and human health -- both in the brain and the lungs.

I dug up some oddball stuff while I was researching an article for the most recent issue of the magazine, Stanford Medicine, that I'm quite proud of. But if you're eating lunch right now, I'd suggest you wait until one hour after you finish before reading further. Or at least make sure no one's looking over your shoulder.

The article, titled "The Mind-Mucus Connection," describes how Stanford molecular and cellular physiologist Axel Brunger, PhD, and a team of fellow scientists took advantage of some known parallels between how our brains work (largely by secreting substances called neurotransmitters) and how the linings of our lungs, gut, stomach and other organs work (partly by secreting a substance called mucus). Those similarities helped them figure out how to develop a drug that might prevent the serious consequences of myriad disorders characterized, at least to some extent, by excessive mucus secretion.

The thing is, you never know what you're going to learn when you do a deep dive into the medical literature. Some of what I found is in the magazine article, and some of it's not. For those who are mucus-curious, here you go:

Mucus comes in various colors and viscosities and hails from various regions of the body. Different bacteria impart different colors. Some molds are black, and they can turn mucus black. Blood makes it dark red. Green likely means you're sick, but we all know that.

Saliva contains mucus, which there's plenty of in the nose.

No grown-up I know of has ever expressed an iota of interest in mucus's nutritional value. But how about looking at it from the viewpoint of hundreds of millions of bright 4- and 5-year-olds who've asked this question with their fingers. (Parents, take note.)

The answer is, it's slippery. If you think salted snacks have nutritional value, then yes. And if you really want to know, it's got about the same caloric content per serving size as oatmeal. There's a bit of protein and carbs in there, too. A superfood, it's not.

Few of us adult types spend any time pondering these minutiae, because...well, just because. The topic doesn't come up much. For the most part, mucus secretion goes on all the time at a boringly low level. And that's a good thing! We hardly notice it -- that is, until a fly lands in the ointment.

The fly can be a viral infection, an allergic or other inflammatory condition, or a genetic disease. It adds up. Many millions of people, in fact, are victims of serious disorders characterized by too much mucus. But preventing the substance's overzealous manifestation without totally shutting down the essential humdrum production that sustains many a vital organ -- to name one example, the lungs -- has been challenging.

Read "The Mind-Mucus Connection" to see how that challenge may be met.

Illustration by Melinda Beck

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