Meet You

Meet Dave” is a somewhat forgettable comedy about miniature aliens landing on Earth in a spaceship replicating a human body. It’s a popcorn flick with a bit of humor and a corny love story.

Dave is controlled by tiny people living inside him who have to work together to coordinate his responses in life. As crazy as this sounds, it’s not that far removed from reality.

We intuitively see our lives at a superficial level. I am me. You are you. Somehow, we each have this mysterious concept of personal awareness/consciousness, and we get busy with “life,” meaning going to work, watching a movie, taking the dog for a walk in the park, etc. Only, that’s not life. That’s an abstract built upon life.

In reality, our lives are more like “Meet Dave” than we would ever imagine. Our bodies are a Rube-Goldberg machine of extraordinary complexity.

Ordinarily, we ignore this biological/mechanical support mechanism, and stop only to smell the roses, until things go wrong. And there’s a lot of wrong that can occur, from catching a virus, picking up a bacterial infection or something more insidious like cancer.

The fundamental building blocks of life are cells. They’re the Lego blocks of this crazy whirlwind adventure we call life, and yet we barely give them any thought at all. Just like the tiny aliens inside Dave, cells differentiate, taking the same basic instruction set but applying it in different ways to form heart, lungs, liver, skin, etc. And we call this complicated mishmash of cells, you. How this occurred from an evolutionary standpoint is remarkable, and a tale told over billions of years.

Dictyostelium Discoideum is a single cell amoeba, just an average joe leading a normal single celled life. And yet when faced with a scarcity of resources, Dict (if I may be informal) bands together to create a multicellular organism that resembles a slug. Individual cells that functioned perfectly well as living organisms on their own switch into a cooperative mode that is a basic model for complex animals such as us. Individual amoebas give up their independence and become role-specific. Some cells form a head, others the body, still others take on the role of an immune system protecting the entire organism. Although amoebas are blind, the newly formed slug will seek out light. It is a remarkable transformation to be hold.

Dictyostelium Discoideum is the biological equivalent of a bunch of Lego blocks independently rearranging themselves to form the bat mobile.

Self-assembling bat-mobile, if only

A self-assembling bat-mobile still wouldn’t be as cool as Dictyostelium Discoideum

At some point in the last billion years, cells figured out how to do this on a permanent basis and realized the massive evolutionary advantage of such a cooperative strategy. Branching out from microbial competition, plants and animals were able to exploit ecological niches to survive and pass on their DNA in more and more varied forms.

Our bodies are comprised of anywhere from 50 to 75 trillion individual cells, depending on how many cheeseburgers you’ve eaten. Cells are small. A single gram of average human tissue contains roughly a billion cells, while the largest cell in the human body is the egg from which we all came, and that’s roughly the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence.

Our bodies are a hot bed of action. In any given minute, roughly a hundred million cells in your body will die. And that’s not a bad thing, because at the same time, other cells are replicating, dividing to replace those lost cells.

Cancer is a complex disease that has many forms, but these all share a common cellular problem–cells that continue to replicate without dying off, and these malfunctioning cells form a tumour. The problem with cancer is cells that should serve a specific purpose for a brief period of time forget that they’re part of a greater whole, you, and start living for themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not sustainable, and so we have developed a variety of treatments to isolate and remove these rogue cells before they cause irreparable damage.

It might be over simplistic, but one way to think of cancer is it’s a reversion to the cellular equivalent of every man (cell) for himself. And instead of working together in a harmonious whole, cells behave as though they’re loners again, only interested in replicating and surviving as long as possible. It’s as though the Dictyostelium Discoideum slug has disbanded.

There’s some exciting research being done along these lines by scientists such as Paul Davies. I don’t mean to oversimplify the problem, but I think cancer research is akin to the assaults on Mt. Everest in the early 1900s. At the time, it looked impossible. Now days, with the right training, guidance and planning, any fit individual can stand on top of the world. In the same way, in the near future, we’ll look back on cancer as being another major medical milestone we have consigned to the history books, like polio and smallpox.

I look forward to the day we gain a mastery over the Rube-Goldberg machine that is our bodies.

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