Friday, August 14, 2009

Is life Infinite?

Or is it finite?


The short answer is yes and no. From the very early beginnings when the four forces converged to create the earth and the first stirrings of life wrestled with survival in the primordial soup, life has continuously evolved into a fascinating gallery of species. It is a continuum of discontinuous gatherings of life forms. Most fail to survive and display their remains as fossils, carbon-dated in time. There are estimates of 1.5 billion species having perished at the rate of 3 an hour.  So, since the beginning of earth time around 3.9 billion years ago the planet has played host to life. If the unmoving mover – time – elects to push life forward from the pool of mucous to it’s ultimate achievement the human kind then the word infinite fits.


But then each individual life is finite also. No traces are left over time except artifacts and skeletal remains that lift the pointed finger to the past. You might just about now ask the question, what has this to do with medicine/medical care? Patience dear reader, for it does.


You might be hanging on tightly to the finely braided rope of hope of immortality watching it fray against the sharp edged precipice of  reality. You watch the dark abyss of reality staring back from the depths and the roots of the tree where your rope is anchored loosening its grip on the earth. Immortality is not a human event. So those tyrants and sociopaths of society better heed to the mortality of life. Doing harm to others in hopes of being immortal is fraught with ignorance. One-day time will extract its pound of flesh. You see, the two soft, slippery, delicate spaghetti like strands intertwined into a double helix called DNA has it’s life’s limit built within.


Leonard Hayflick in 1968 discovered that cells divide for a finite period of time and then die. This limit in humans is about 50 +/- 10. The limit is based on the tail end of the chromosome called Telomere. This tail can be imagined to have indented pieces attached end on end. So if the cell has 50 pieces, then for each division the cell loses a piece until all are gone and then the cell dies. There are also other factors including the Free Radical damage (nascent oxygen radicals liberated by the cells-as a consequence of injury or infection- causing damage to the mitochondria the energy producing factory within the cell) that may hasten the cellular proliferation and thus diminish Telomere content. So, finite is written on the very sacred document of humanity called DNA. You are born and there written in your DNA script is roughly when you will be pushing daisies, give or take a few Telomeres. The only cells that do not subscribe to the Hayflick limit are the stem cells. These few stalwarts are hidden in niches difficult to find. However if DNA damage hits any of these cells to the tune of creating a malignancy then survival is short-circuited immensely.


But within this interesting piece of spaghetti-like DNA are the remains of evolution. The DNA collects data as it comes in contact with various other species. Viruses are clever strategists; they unfold and insinuate their own material into ours for their own propagation. This transference leads to mechanistic changes in our DNA, which is then faced with the onslaught of improper gene regulation or improper protein production. Improper gene regulation can be the p53 gene mutation expression causing various cancers (Li-Fraumeni Syndrome) or in improper protein production as in ADA deficiency with immune modulatory dysfunction. One species is hitching a ride for its propagation to the detriment of its host, the latter suffers from the formers parasitic behavior. Not all genetic changes however are harmful though. Some actually are beneficial. For example the Sickle Cell Anemia gene mutation actually was a protection against malaria in the African Subcontinent. And some suspect that the Diabetes Mellitus gene gone awry may be a body’s defense against cold weather, whereby the sugar reduces the temperature for the water in the cells from crystallizing to prevent cellular damage or outright rupture in cold weather. Before you go telling people that remember we are not talking about the Type II, which occurs as a result of too many Twinkies.


This is how the infinite/finite life propagates. One life form domesticating the other for it’s own needs. Both, knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating each other’s survival. A breathtaking musical interlude, unfolding as the chorus merges with voices to create the symphonic masterpiece much like Beethoven’s 9th.


So we have a draw. Life is finite when seen through the eyes of a human but an overarching visual from above of the entire spectrum of life in this space-time continuum shows us that it is infinite as long as the earth remains the planetary ball with resources to feed its inhabitants. If the earth moves more in the direction of Mars, aliens may be looking for “canaliculi” from afar with their telescopes on a barren landscape.

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