Monday, October 20, 2008

Our Cells

I enjoyed a fascinating documentary over the weekend called Death By Design. The documentary reveled how cells interact with each other and their environment. Also, the film pointed out that cells often destroy themselves when told to by outside sources -- other cells higher in the chain of their command structure. Or, some incident in the environment is a signal to the cell that it needs to die for other cells to be formed or so that it can become nourishment or recycled material for the organism as a whole.

The whole thing blew my mind. Awe overtook me especially, when the film introduced a community of single cell organism that would live as separate individual organisms. Yet, if the environment stopped supporting the group, the cells would merge into a brand new organism! Think something like Voltron or the Constructicons from the Transformers. Or, think of the Sandman in Spider-Man. But every grain of sand is an individual entity -- yet they all give up their identity to create a new creature.

When this creature is formed, the community is no longer -- only the multi-celled organism that slinks away to find a better environment. Once found, it grows a stalk and releases spores which produce -- a whole new community of single cell organisms!

That really challenged my view of what life really means.

Our cells probably could live on . . . but they don't. Cancer is when cells refuse to die and respond to the signal to self-destruct (according to the documentary). What if we could find a way to make the right cells continue to live and the necessary ones die? Keep in mind, some cells need to die and disintegrate. Such material isn't needed and can cause major dysfunction. Thus, cancer is often deadly -- especially if left untreated.

And another thing . . . what keeps our cells (as humans) from merging into a new life form with other people?

Life is thought to have started from a single cell organism (if you believe in evolution. I do). And over time, communities of cells learned to come together to form multi-cell organisms. So, this odd community that merges into a new life form seems to be the missing link between single cell and multi-cell creatures!


And somehow, this knowledge makes the thought of death a little easier for me. I don't know why . . . it just does. I guess seeing that all nature cycles, changes, dies, and is born again. (no, not like in the bible!) We're not just being picked on. We just happen to have the cognition to know what's going on around us.

But to see cells change from one state to another makes me wonder if perhaps we do live on -- in some way. Not like the vivid afterlife of heaven as in the bible. But, in a subtle way. What if a tree has material from someone who died millions of years ago because their remains fertilized the ground? What about someone's ashes spread out to the sea? What if plants came to life in part because of that material that floated to the bottom of the ocean?

What if we become absorbed as nourishment for other organisms and ultimately some of our material resurfaces again as part of something else -- somewhere else?

Maybe the ancient philosophies and beliefs that accept reincarnation picked up on this possibility. Maybe they couldn't name it at the time and explained it instead with religion. I think the ancients recognized that we aren't only a smaller part of a larger cosmos. But also, a cosmos can be found in our very selves -- which in turn is made up of an unseen microcosm that may actually live beyond ourselves.

I think we can name it now; I think it's our cells.
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