Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mostly Small is a Good Thing

Whatever org tree you or I may favor (personally, I'm a Carl Woese 3-domain man), everything living in its branches either is a cell or constructed of cells. These cells, of course, are mostly small—too small to see with the unaided eye. This is so obviously the case, that I can state with some confidence of impunity that any living thing you may haphazardly observe standing, lying, sitting, running, wriggling or oozing across your field of view consists of a great quantity of compact, highly organized cells—though exceptions exist and we'll get to them later. There are a lot of limiting factors, related to size, that have strongly influenced evolution to keep cells small. Some of these considerations include: chemical energetic factors, limited strength v functionality of phospholipid membranes, transport of molecules across membranes, metabolic requirements, etc, etc. Yes, there are many factors to take into account, but one little statement sums up the basis for any discussion of this subject:

Or, more crudely and more to the point: the bigger a cell is, the more difficult it becomes for the cell to stay in one piece, feed itself and dispose of wastes.

Cells are magnificently complex and have millions (and billions) of molecules popping in out of the organelles, zipping around in the cytoplasm, roaring along the cytoskeleton and being transported back and forth across the external membrane at a rate that has yet to be adequately described or illustrated (though XVIVO makes a serious dent). A cell is NOT SIMPLY a little water balloon (even an enucleated red blood cell is far more complex than that). It is NOT JUST a tiny bag filled with amazing chemicals and long, tangled strands of DNA. It is NOT ONLY an engine, a factory or a power plant. A cell is a CITY in miniature...perhaps the analogous equivalent to New York, Moscow and Shanghai rolled into one massively complex micro-megalopolis. It is a tiny kingdom peppered with power generators, crisscrossed with girders, flowing with lines of chemical communication, supported by water and sewage infrastructure, thousands of factories, untold numbers of public works crews and an efficient parcel delivery service integrally linked to a lightning fast import/export industrial enterprise centrally controlled by a bustling civic center. And, in the case of some bacterial cells, it can make a doppelgänger of itself every twenty minutes.

Generally speaking, cells are marvels of miniaturization, and they use their smallness to their molecular advantage. Everything inside the cell is close to everything else. No molecule has to travel far, because there just isn't far to travel. In contrast, the impractical consequences of having really large individual cells quickly demonstrates numerous reasons for cell size limitation. If most humans cells were, say three millimeters in diameter, serious negative results are immediately apparent: Internal organs would have to be larger (a heart as big as a beach ball and lungs the size of mattresses) and simply would not fit in a human body as we know it. In the case of injury, a simple cut in skin of such over-sized cells would leave a huge swath of destruction that would be very slow to heal. Connective tissue built up of these huge cells would lack strength and stability. The crystal clarity of an eye's lens would be impossible if made from layers of big, plump cells. Many precise anatomical components, such as blood vessels, the inner ear, and kidneys would be clumsy and unlikely to function. Most importantly, the formerly speedy transport of molecules from outside each cell to the center, or from the center out would never be sufficiently fast across the vast interior of bb sized cells. Most molecules would have to swim or be carried across a veritable ocean to reach their destinations. Therein lies the surface-to-volume ratio challenge.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Giant Microbe Plush Toys

Ok, so I know this will sound silly.

I was over at Sierra College's Bookstore this week and, while waiting for a sales associate to find the lab manual for General Biology, I was pleasantly surprised when a colorful group of fuzzy Giant Microbes attracted my attention. I had heard about these plush toys and looked quickly through the assortment to see if Saccharomyces cerevisiae (beer and bread yeast) was available, but alas some other aficionado of commercially valuable single-celled eukaryotes must have been there before me. Disappointed, but not discouraged, I continued rifling through the extant selection and chose a Helicobacter pylori, with its distinctive crop of lophotrichous flagella, and then I waffled for a while between a giant red plush erythrocyte or a gangly looking neuron, finally settling on the former.

When my granddaughter visited today, taking a break from her horse-husbandry classes at UC Davis, she hesitated not at all to properly identify the erythrocyte in its concave plushness, as a "red blood cell". I was pleased. The H. pylori was, in turn, a mystery to her. She did always lean more toward anatomy and physiology than toward infectious diseases—leprosy being the sole exception. Her romantic fascination with the flesh-destroying disease had popped up unexpectedly after viewing "The Kingdom of Heaven" film. Notwithstanding the wonders of leprosy (or the charms of Orlando Bloom for that matter) my g-daughter evinced laudable interest when I explained that Dr. Barry Marshall had intentionally infected himself with H. pylori by drinking a beaker full, got very ill, and then cured himself with a mixed course of powerful antibiotics. His bold actions silenced the detractors who touted conventional wisdom that bacteria could not live in the harsh, acidic stomach environment. Marshall and his co-researcher, Dr. Robin Warren—both of Australia—eventually shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Hmmm, I just checked the Giant Microbe website again…no Mycobacterium leprae. Well, maybe they'll add to their lineup in time for Christmas. Then g-daughter will have something to cuddle up with as she dreams about life in Jerusalem at the time of Baldwin IV...the Leper King. Meanwhile, our hats are tipped to the team of Marshal and Warren, for discovering and isolating H. Pyloriperhaps the world's most common infection.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Stomach Flu: a misnomer no more?

As anyone with a little bit of scientific knowledge is wont to do, I've been correcting people for years when they bandy medical terms about in a haphazard fashion. My attempts at correction are seldom met with a welcoming reception and I may yet give up, for instance, reminding my friends and relatives that symptoms of a Rhinovirus infection are not improved by liberal ingestion of antibiotics.

Another irresistible opportunity for correction pops up frequently when people complain of having the "stomach flu". Recently a Facebook friend repeated this common medical misnomer, bemoaning the difficulty of remaining hydrated when nothing wanted to stay down because she had the stomach flu. I was about to post a comment along with links to sites supporting my contention that influenza is a respiratory disease and has nothing to do with gastrointestinal distress. But then, as my mouse pointer hovered patiently over the comment command, I discovered that PubMed Health had apparently caved to the use of the term.

In short, the folks at PubMed have opted to equate the medical term Viral gastroenteritis with the slang "stomach flu" in much the same way as Rhinovirus has been supplanted by "common cold" in the popular vernacular. I suppose if it's good enough for as prestigious an organization as PubMed, then I should cave too, but I want you to know that I'm not going down without a fight. It will gall me to no end, however, if I run across someone who says their stomach flu was cured by antibiotics when, in fact, it was a case of giardiasis that really was helped by antibiotic medication.