November 2, 2019 | Henry Richter

How the Cell Handles Oxygen: A Nobel Prize Discovery

Another Amazing Body Function Discovered – Cellular Oxygen Regulation

by Henry L. Richter, PhD, PE

This year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to three researchers. They have discovered how cells in the human body automatically regulate their oxygen content. The amount of oxygen is always in a delicate balance. Too little and the cell cannot metabolize properly, too much and the cell goes into overdrive. A recent article in Chemical  & Engineering News (C&EN October 14, 2019 page 5), describes the award as follows:

Cells are marvels of control and regulation. Credit: Illustra Media

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to three researchers whose work on the role of oxygen in cellular biology has been described as paradigm shifting.

William G. Kaelin Jr. at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe of the University of Oxford and the Francis Crick Institute, and Gregg L. Semenza of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine will share the roughly $1 million prize for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to a lack of oxygen.

While most life on Earth has evolved to metabolize oxygen to survive, too much or too little of the gas in cells can be catastrophic. Kaelin, Ratcliffe, and Semenza identified the proteins that are involved in cellular oxygen sensing and how they interact. Their work has contributed insights to fields such as developmental biology and cancer research and led to drugs to treat cancer and anemia.

Here is another instance of a highly sophisticated body function that is absolutely essential to life. It is amusing that this article attributes this process to “life on Earth has evolved…” as if somehow this function did not exist at some point. How did the organism survive until evolution came up with it through some typical random process?

The C&EN article goes on to explain the mechanism as they understand it:

Amazing FactsThe trio’s findings all revolve around the actions of a transcription factor called hypoxia-inducible factor, or HIF. Under normal oxygen conditions, cell enzymes hydroxylate a component of HIF called HIF-1 α making it recognizable to another protein VHL. When VHL binds to HIF-1α it marks the transcription factor for destruction by the cellular machinery that munches up proteins. But when oxygen levels in cells are low, or in some disease states, HIF-1 α doesn’t get marked for destruction, allowing it to switch on the genes involved in a low-oxygen response.

Oxygen sensing allows the cells to adapt their metabolism to low or high oxygen conditions, which is crucial for cell health, Forsyth explains. Many physiological functions are also fine-tuned by this process, and oxygen sensing is central to the treatment of disease (see page 10). For example, Torisel and Zortress target HIF to try to reduce the number of blood vessels that feed tumors in the body.

There are so many body functions that are absolutely essential to allow cells to be healthy. Another that comes to mind is temperature control of the body. We are used to experiencing the “98.6º” meaning good health. Temperature is generated by cells metabolizing nutrients at the right rate to keep us properly warm and healthy. What measures the body temperature, and what controls the heat production in such a precise way? Really, very precise!

The human body is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). There is such overwhelming evidence of an intricate design, that it must take powerful prejudices to ignore and reject facts.  


Dr. Henry Richter was born in Long Beach, California, and served a short tour of duty in the U.S. Navy in World War II. From there he received a BS and PhD (Chemistry, Physics, and Electrical Engineering) from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena California. Then he went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which became part of NASA. While there he headed up the development of the free worlds first earth satellite, Explorer 1. He then oversaw the scientific instrumentation for the Ranger, Mariner, and Surveyor Programs. From JPL, he went to Electro-Optical Systems becoming a Vice President and Technical Director. Next was a staff position with UCLA as Development Manager of the Mountain Park Research Campus. He then owned an electronics manufacturing business and afterwards became the Communications Engineer for the L.A. County Sheriffs Department. Since 1977, he has been a communications consultant to Public Safety organizations. He is a life member of APCO, the IEEE, and the American Chemical Society. This year, he is the 2019 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Radio Club of America, which he will be awarded this month at their annual banquet in New York City. His book America’s Leap into Space details the origins of rocketry and his own role in the launching of the first American satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. Henry Richter is also author of Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers, with co-author David Coppedge (Creation Ministries International, 2016). Creation-Evolution Headlines is honored to have Dr Richter as a contribution writer. See his Author Profile for his previous contributions.

For many more wonders of the human body, read chapter 3 in Dr Richter’s book, Spacecraft Earth: A Guide for Passengers.

Dr Richter’s book examines many amazing finely-tuned “coincidences” that make our planet habitable

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