June 25, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Wonders Inside You

Do you have any idea how many emergencies are resolved inside your body every day without your conscious knowledge or control?  Here are just 3 examples.

Sugar cops:  The surfaces of many body cells are covered with what look like a thin forest, where the trees are sugar molecules.  A recent article on PhysOrg explained how this is a frontier of biology: “The “glycome”—the full set of sugar molecules in living things and even viruses—has been one of the least understood domains of biology, the article said, but the glycome “encodes key information that regulates things such as cell trafficking events and cell signaling.”  Largely independent of the genetic code, which builds proteins, the glycome represents another kind of code or signalling system vital to health.

Tissue graveyard:  When epithelial cells (common in body tissues) die, how are they disposed of?  A kind of burial at sea takes place automatically as neighboring cells squeeze out the bad cell, Current Biology said (Current Biology, Volume 22, Issue 11, R453-R455, 5 June 2012, 10.1016/j.cub.2012.04.036).  It’s called “crowding-induced live cell extrusion.”  This is important because “To maintain a functional and harmonious epithelial society, the number and quality of cells need to be tightly controlled,” Katoh and Fujita emphasized.

Immigration policy:  “We are not alone,” Michael Balter wrote, but he was not discussing SETI or aliens, he was introducing a special feature in Science last week about the “microbiome,” the set of microbes that travel with us everywhere we go.  “Our bodies, inside and out, are teeming with trillions of microbes. Most of them are our friends, helping us to digest food, strengthen our immune systems, and keep dangerous enemy pathogens from invading our tissues and organs.”  Needless to say, if our own cells did not keep tight regulation of these alien cells, we would be in constant danger.  In his introductory article (Science 8 June 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6086 pp. 1246-1247, DOI: 10.1126/science.336.6086.1246), Balter wrote, “Evidence is building that this resident community of microbes, called the microbiome, plays a major role in health and disease.”

We look out our eyeballs like a captain looks out the window of a cruise ship, thinking we are in control of this large vessel we inhabit.  But actually, just like the captain of the ship, we are clueless as to what is really going on in the hull.  In a large cruise ship with hundreds of employees and thousands of guests, little emergencies happen all the time: a fire in the kitchen, a suspicious character in the wrong place, anomalies in the engine room.  If the captain had to know every incident, he would be distracted from steering, for one thing, and wouldn’t know what to do about most problems anyway.  Fortunately, each department on the ship has policies and procedures for handling just about every contingency.  The captain smiles, hands on the wheel, confident the ship is under control.  In our bodies, things are far more precarious.  We are beset daily by broken DNA strands hit by cosmic rays or ionizing radiation, unhealthy food materials, improperly folded proteins, and a host of bacteria and viruses that vastly outnumber our own cells.  As with the cruise ship, there are built-in policies and procedures for handling most of these situations that operate without our conscious knowledge or control.

One biology professor was fond of remarking,”The amazing thing is not that we get sick.  The amazing thing is that we are ever well.”  Are you having a nice day today?  Are you basically healthy?  Count your blessings.  You have so many trillion helpers inside of you, you could not possibly know what they do or why.  Not even our leading scientists have a grasp on all the relationships, signals and pathways involved.  We know a little about white blood cells that patrol our internal highways.  We know a little about DNA damage repair.  We know a little about tissue regeneration and replacement.  But far more remains unknown, such as the glycome mentioned above.  One thing becomes clearer each passing day: we owe our existence to fantastically complex, interrelated processes that boggle the mind, things that Darwin never knew about when he concocted his little myth.

As you peer out the windows of your cruise ship today, smile and enjoy the view, knowing things are under control.  Just don’t take so much credit for it.  There’s a higher Authority that assigned you your ship, temporarily, with all its crew.  Respect the crew and follow the Authority’s orders, knowing you will give an account.  With great privilege comes great responsibility.


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