Monday, May 02, 2005

The Language of Cells

“For all those who are fascinated by the magic of the infinitely small, hidden in the bosom of the living being are millions of palpitating cells whose only demand for the surrender of their secret, and with it the halo of fame, is a lucid and tenacious intelligence to contemplate them, to admire and to understand them.”
-- from Cajal's autobiography, Recuerdos de mi vida: Historia de mi laborcientica, Tercera edicion, 1923.

Cell signaling: a language between and within cells. Perhaps the most basic language in existence, it evolved, and still evolves, long before we were even a mote in a God's eye. The language of life and death, of sex and asex, of stop and go.

My interest in Cell Language goes so far back I can't remember.
What 'tells' leaves to turn red and fall off trees?
Years later: How do cold temperatures or shorter days tell leaves to turn red and fall off trees?
Decade later: What signal(s) induced at ~40 F tells vascular tissue in the base of leaf stems to thicken causing the leaf to fall off the branch (abscission), and why does anthocyanin predominate in senescing leaves?
Decade later: The Answer (TM): molecular signals cascading down a highway of stimuli, an evolutionary Russian roulette, adaptation and reproduction by survivors, a game of dominoes between biochemicals in a large organism. The language of birth, life and death. It is the Cycle.

Plant hormones intrigued me, but mammalian hormones caught my attention and never let me go. They are responsible for the differences between men and plants, and men and women. Hormones, the poetry of signaling molecules on a grand scale.

No one portrays this better than Robert Sapolsky, the bard of hormones. A neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University, Sapolsky studied the interplay of hormones in baboons: how environmental stress influenced their hormonal changes and how hormones influenced their behavior. His and similar studies have served as models for hormones and humans, which Sapolsky relates so eloquently in his two books, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" and "The Trouble with Testosterone."

Hormones are the language between tissues and organs in our body. The world around us talks to us through our hormones and our hormones talk to our brains, influencing how we act. But it works in reverse as well. However, this is Cell Language on a grand scale. What we see and hear less of are the little innuendos and nuances in that language. For at the smallest level other molecules are the translation of those hormones. The rug and smoke signals on the hill. red and green lights, sign and body language. Cells signaling back and forth, inside and outside. Overlapping, redundant, and compensating.

It reminds me of a Beethoven symphony, or Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. In fact, those orchestrated signaling molecules transmit the sounds from the instruments through my ear canals, strumming the lobe hairs, and caressing the neurons in my brain, ligands coupling with receptors and playing the cords of the music in my brain, so that even the hairs on my arm tingle with the pleasure of a violin concerto.

Is it any wonder when I see people strolling by as if they were large mobile test tubes churning with chemical reactions, flinging ATP here and oxidizing lipids there, small bursting free radicals quenched by antioxidants. And it amazes me when I see the impact we have on each other, our surroundings, and our ability to reason, to think, to be able to understand all that we are. But do we comprehend all that we do?

This is my reality. I find beauty in these most minute intricate details. They are precious, magical and amazing. This is the ultimate unknown in the smallest scale. The universe is equally fascinating, in the grandest scale. Life is inspiring and passionate.

This is science.

Wait, I hear a symphony......

1 comment:

  1. It is the things most simple that have the most beauty. I see the world this way too...I also see a great deal that needs large quantities of DNase!! ;-)