Thursday, October 20, 2011


THE ONE CELLED VILLAGE: POWER, SEX AND SUICIDE (Just like a mitochondria) “Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life” by Nick Lane, a big handsome guy who looks vaguely like Clive Owen, is the most exciting book I’ve read in a long time. Here’s the url for more info.,%20Sex,%20Suicide.html This is the gaudiest “scientific” website you’re likely to encounter, and -- believe me -- the book is just as bright and exciting! That means both the ideas and the writing, which is full of witty asides that make it much easier to grasp and digest. This is a guy you could spend a roaring evening with in a pub! His science benefits deeply from it -- no lack of ATP in his social mitochondria!

I don’t suppose there will ever be a village with an athletic squad called the “Mitochondrians,” but if there were, both team and village (likely populated by biologists), would be formidable, with many backup strategies. Yet so much simple loyalty to the purpose that the Infections and Traumas would rarely win a game. Even Old Age might be backed off. I’ve returned the book (Had to borrow it from the U of Montana Bozeman library) so don’t trust the accuracy of my account of what is traced here, but the main storyline is worthy of a troubador. The theme is membranes (think of castle walls and coastal cliffs) and their necessity in the creation of life (community).

The creative generation of energy to be used by one little entity is what we call “life.” It needs to be separated from the primordial soup and so the question has been “where did the first membrane come from?” Nick (it seems permissible to call him that) likes that idea I first saw in the Fifties in Life magazine where guys in lab coats were zapping soup in a fish aquarium with mini-lightning to see what they got. It turns out that metals might be the key, though that’s not intuitive unless you’re trying to create mechanical life. Still, with the right conditions, the result is a blob with a membrane around it. Pretty soon -- I must have got up to feed the cats at that point because I don’t remember the details -- a nucleus forms, a bracelet (one chromosome arranged in a circle) that has the formula for both how to make ATP and how to make a new bacterium, because that’s what this is: a bacteria.

They’re promiscuous little beasts who leak enzyme instructions right and left, acquiring and discarding all the time. But their membranes are unyielding -- they cannot change shape. There is another couple of kinds of little beasts and one DOES have a flexible boundary. It eats by surrounding little bits and drawing them in. (Amoebas.) It’s BIG and has LOTS of genes, arranged in double rows. It likes buddying up with the stiffer bacteriums, and one day it swallows its little pal. But it doesn’t digest it. It lets the bacterium, now a mitochondria, replicate and share nutrients. The mito, in turn, stuffs a few of its genes into the nucleus of the eukaryote, delegating authority, as it were. But it always keeps the secret ingredient of how to make ATP for itself, in its bracelet.

Now Nick tells us what ATP really is and how it works. It’s an itsy bitsy bucket brigade of electrons the same as the power cord on the lamp. It’s made by pumping electrons across the membranes. Mitos know how to control the flow, how to pass it along, signal to slow down or speed up. The eukarote is now free to evolve by forming colonies, specializing, and generally thriving while the mitos keep stoking the fires of the ocean liner species that eukaryotes become. They are literally “burning” because one main ingredient -- the “beef” -- is oxygen. (I love mixed metaphors but I probably should say “coal”.)

We think of evolution as being a matter of sex as a means of pressing mutations against the environment so that the creatures’ mutations become more suitable for survival, but when scientists were able to look at the mitos at the ATP level, it became clear that they were still swapping genes around and that life takes leaps. Of course, if it goes hopping around too much, it’ll just disperse itself. So sex developed as a way of letting one donor’s eukaryotic egg -- which is an egg because it carries the donor’s mitos along with a bunch of other funny little inclusions captured from the bacteria world -- dump the donor’s mitos way back in the scrotum. Some of the little mitos manage to smuggle along with the sperm, but they aren’t entirely welcome and the egg mitos will try to eliminate them. Mito wars and failures are probably at the heart of the many, many (MOST!) discarded fertilized eggs that fail to develop.

But it’s a quiet carnage. There are two kinds of cell death: one is necrotic: “blood”, bits, and general mess. The other is called “apoptosis” which is just quiet, voluntary disintegration. I can’t help thinking of a pop-it bead necklace that loses all its connections and becomes little bits, which the surrounding tissues “eat.” Apoptosis means that worn out mitos and cells are told “that’s it, time’s up, stop existing.” So they do. No muss, fuss or bother. No evidence, no fossils. Re-sorbed. If apoptosis fails, the result is cancer, our scourge. If mitos are faulty, they create an array of hard-to-diagnose and possibly one-of-a-kind afflictions.

Figuring out how all this happens and the evolutionary path from soup to -- dare I say, “human nuts?” -- is clear and exciting because it begins to point towards a future that might not be so much “post-human” as “trans-human,” since it will admit at last that we’re not the lone, proud individuals we thought we were -- nor is our species. We are processes with electrons and oxygen molecules pouring through us, carrying information that could be either “eu” or “mal.”

It may be that we’ve been neglecting the uses of apoptosis, depending far too much on carnage to control each other in our greed to maintain our own emotional membranes and internal mitos. The way we see the world has a deep impact on how we manage ourselves and what is around us. This book can change the world. Certainly it describes how it’s already changing constantly. Maybe the mighty Mitos can’t survive if the towns that support high schools all die of apoptosis. Or maybe old teachers and coaches fail to retire, so the game plan never changes and the larger shifting world snuffs it. Is this a plot for a novel or what?


Richard S. Wheeler said...

The photos with which you decorate your weblog are sublime, and evoke the spare surroundings where you live. They are fine art, taken by a master. Keep giving us those portraits of your world.

Art Durkee said...

Apoptosis is one of those words that makes me want to write a poem. I have a whole series of poems going that have titles from Greek theological terms.

I did a search for "apoptosis+theology" and came up with some things I think you might find interesting:

There's a lot there that I can easily think disagreeable, although some of it's worth thinking about. The most interesting to me of these was McPhate's, where he brings in Teilhard de Chardin, who is always wroth listening to. Teilhard may be the best voice of these, in the end.

prairie mary said...

Big thanks, Art! I never would have thought of apoptosis with theology! I did remark to someone who was very low that they sounded as though they had "apoptosis of the soul" and that made him laugh, so he felt better. I love the word.

Prairie Mary

prairie mary said...

PS: I love Chardin as well.

Prairie Mary