Sunday, March 31, 2013


It used to be that one only knew one’s origin was one’s mother.  You might have two or more mothers:  one to give birth and several to give care.  Some of those mothers might be male. The identity of the inseminating father was ambiguous.   Now we know and can prove the identities of the fathers -- the only problem is making them cough up that child support check.  That’s one cynical take on modern society but it certainly is not the only one confusing us.  

With modern medical technology, a person may be conceived in a petri dish, implanted -- not necessarily in the womb of the ovum producer and maybe even in the womb of the grandmother or another surrogate mother (no one has been brought to term inside a chimpanzee that we know of, but it might be possible since cow ova can be carried in rabbit wombs), carried to term and birthed either in the natural progression of things or with a chemical trigger, and delivered either with a lot of muscle effort or with a knife.

But now there’s an additional mother possibility: your mitochondria mother.  To review, we all recognize that the double helix of the chromosomes unzips and separates, one side in the mother (ovum) and one side in the father (sperm).  The father’s side is only that little half-zipper but it has a propeller attached so it will travel.  It’s a biological Zodiac boat.  The mother’s side gets the house: the cell, because it stays and waits.  All the sperms with their code message go buzzing up the Great Canal and one breaks into the house.  He is welcome and zipped-up with the waiting half of the 23 chromosomes.

There is furniture in that House of Ovum, little blobs of what might once have been one-celled animals who got pulled through the wall of the motherhouse.  The most crucial inclusions are the mitochondria, which were probably pulled in long ago when an Ovum went it alone as a bacteria.  The mitos are power paks with their own set of 37 genes on one chromosome: Neversplit batteries.  They do not unzip and rezip.  The Ovum, when its nucleus is re-zipped, quickly transforms into a blastosphere and then an embryo, a fetus, an infant, and a toddler . . . according to its own 23,000 gene pairs.  But it is dependent on the energy of those mitos.  If -- as in giant airliners -- the batteries, the mitos, have probs, the animal will suffer.  One in 6,000 people has something wrong with their mito genes.  They don’t burst into flames, but they have trouble and may abort.  

One can only inherit mito genes from one’s mother.  I’m rather proud of mine.  My mother was an energetic woman, though her mother was a little compromised by her environment.  My mother’s mother’s mother was a vigorous person.  My niece does not have the same mito genes that I have, because our relationship is through her father, my brother.  But she has plenty of vigor and she is tough-minded as well.  She’s working on graduate degrees in animal fertility, teaching as an adjunct, running a business shearing sheep and camelids, and doing AI.  She’s proud of her calves, though none of them have her genes.  She WAS the inseminator.  She fistfucks cows, right out in the public and with fertile consequences.  

She would easily understand this next part of the story.  Nuclear transfer is in principle one of the easiest methods of genetic engineering. In this case, they are talking about taking a donor egg and then transferring the nuclear genetic material from the parents' fertilized egg into that donor egg -- that is, moving the re-zipped chromosomes into a new house with better furniture.  In more medical language, it's taking the cytoplasm from one woman (including all the mitochondria in that cell) and grafting into it a whole diploid genome from a cell with two other parents. Mitos have their own separate chromosome, only one with 37 genes that change only by mutation, never by re-zipping.

There are many other complexifications with chromosome codes in the nucleus, which are more varied than anyone expected.  An excellent overview is at  This new technique doesn’t change any of those things and will not “fix” problems with the nuclear chromosomes, whether those that determine the actual structuring of the embryo or those that control the unfolding plan as the baby gestates.  Only recently have researchers realized that each “pair” of genes on the zipped-up chromosomes do a little negotiating between them to decide which one will be dominant or whether they will compromise in some way.  Also, we now see that there are “epi-genes”, a kind of sleeve around each chromosome that may influence how things turn out.  It’s possible that “living” in a different house from the one where the female half of the zipped-up chromosome was made will seriously affect the nature and development of the embryo.  It’s a sort of micro-case of an unique individual adjusting to a new environment.

This neglects the influence of the interchange with the gestating mother, who is sending chemical messengers like hormones as well as oxygen and nourishing metabolites.  Humans are not perfectly designed and stamped out but are organic art forms with many variations, including that of the beholding party who tries to interpret what they see before them.

This is Easter when the Northern Hemisphere is teeming with recombinant fertility as well as budding mitosis.  Whether you think it’s about a rabbit, a God fertilizing a virgin in order to create a Son -- only to have the beholders kill Him, or whether you feel it’s all about Easter egg rolls and marshmallow peeps, the actual planetary event -- which is the tipping of the earth’s axis -- goes on without any control from us.  In the past we’ve only been able to behold it with our feet on the ground and that’s a good thing, just as poetic as watching from outer space.  Our imaginations run wild.  A cave becomes a birth canal for a rebirth.  Winter becomes the grieving of a mother who has lost her daughter to the dark sex of the God of Death, and then Spring is the rejoicing of that mother when her daughter returns.  They don’t tell us that Proserpine is pregnant, but my guess is that she is and will give birth in the fall, harvest-time.

I just watched Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller, Prometheus, about the origin of the Alien creature.  It is "riddled" with puns and metaphors about death, birth, insemination, gestation, and the nature of the human being.  An android can have sex but not babies.  It has no chromosomes.  This belongs to the preceding “Endarkenment” of Good Friday.  The movie begins with a dark swirling video of broken double helixes and ends with Lizbeth going off on a new adventure with the android’s head (a computer) in her gym bag.  Ken Kesey“The need for mystery is greater than the need for answers.”  We won't run out of mystery.

1 comment:

Pamela said...

What a great post to read on an Easter morning. A few years ago after I got an mtDNA test I started thinking about mitochondria. To me they're humble cooks-- women of course, working in outdoor kitchens to make food for the big shots inside the nucleus wall. They're too jealous with their recipes to allow anyone but daughters to pass them on. Your "mitos" right now are making scones and oaties, laughing and telling naughty stories in Gaelic. I have a Scots grandma too, but my own mitochondria are making acorn mush and tamales. They appreciate our love and remembrance.