Category Archives: Excerpts

Lives of muskrat lymphocytes

Large lymphocyte from a normal blood film

One of my favorite essays by the immunologist-poet, Miroslav Holub, describes the symphony of cellular life enacted after a muskrat drowns in the writer’s pool and is shot by a neighbor. The scene itself is grim yet fairly boring and commonplace; dead animals, be it a robin flown into our window or a white-footed mouse decapitated by our cat, seem to be an ordinary part of suburban life. But Holub views the situation from the interior view of the animal and with the sense and extrapolation of a poet. His interest in the phenomenon of death lies in the cellular process that are taking place long after we conceive of the animal as “dead.” While ordinarily we see the spectrum of alive to dead as having a definitive moment of change from A to B, a universe of interactions, an ecosystem of cellular bodies, continues to communicate, move, exist. I’ve copied my favorite excerpt from the essay, that of the lymphocytes (an immunologist’s specialty), below.

So there was this muskrattish courage, an elemental bravery transcending life.

But mainly, among the denaturing proteins and the disintegrating peptide chains, the white blood cells lived, really lived, as anyone knows who has ever peeked into a microscope, or anyone knows who remembers how live tissue cells were grown from a sausage in a Cambridge laboratory (the sausage having certainly gone through a longer funereal procedure than blood that is still flowing). There were these shipwrecked white blood cells in the cooling ocean, millions and billions of them on the concrete, on the rags, in the wrung-out murkiness. Bewildered by the unusual temperature and salt concentration, lacking unified signals and gentle ripples of the vascular endothelium, they were nevertheless alive and searching for whatever they were destined to search for. The T lymphocytes were using their receptors to distinguish the muskrat’s self markers from nonself bodies. The B lymphocytes were using their antibody molecules to pick up everything the muskrat had learned about the outer world in the course of its evolution. Plasma cells were dropping antibodies in various places. Phagocyte cells were creeping like amoebas on the bottom of the pool, releasing their digestive granules in an attempt to devour its infinite surface. And here and there a blast cell divided, creating two new, last cells.

Observing for beauty

The Scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful.

– Jules Henri Poincare (fieldnotes from “Field Notes on Science and Nature”

Victor Weisskopf

What is beautiful in science is the same thing that is beautiful in Beethoven. There’s a fog of events and suddenly you see a connection. It expresses a complex of human concerns that goes deeply to you, that connects things that were always in you that were never put together before.

(fieldnotes from Sean B. Carroll’s “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”

Phylogenetic humility

Just a welcoming sentiment from Robert M. Sapolsky in his collection of science essays, Monkeyluv. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford, and his essays, often humorous, delve into neuroscience, hormones, and human behavior. Oliver Sacks has called him “one of the best scientist-writers of our time,” and while I wouldn’t put Sapolsky on the same pedestal as I do Gould, or Levi, or Thomas when it comes to prose and insight, the man certainly has his moments, which manifest in me dog-earring a corner of a page. This one stood out to me this morning on the 3 train to work while reading an essay titled ” Bugs on the Brain.” As someone who gets excited over pathogenic protozoa and animal behavior, I muttered “Toxoplasma gondii” upon seeing the heading.

Like most people who come across any mention of Toxoplasma (it gets a fair amount of press; e.g., via Carl Zimmer), Sapolsky is interested in the precision of how the protozoa can manipulate behavior. The organism relies on a simple and common two-host system to complete its life cycle: the predator-prey interaction of rodent and cat. Rodents ingest the protozoa, which encysts in the mammal, with particular affinity for denning in the brain. When rodents are consumed by felines, Toxoplasma can reproduce, new organisms are shed through feces, which happen to be a food source for rodents and thus how the life cycle comes full circle. Many pathogens that rely on multiple hosts influence behavior, and there is a bevy of literature that describes just this, particularly with tapeworms. In the case of Toxoplasma, the protozoa interferes with a rodent’s natural aversion to feline pheromones; interferes is a weak term–the organism makes the rodent attracted to feline odor, increasing the probability that it becomes successful prey.

What interests Sapolsky so about this host-parasite interaction is that a rodent infected with Toxoplasma gondii otherwise behaves normally. As he notes, infected rodents maintain their social status within the system’s hierarchy, they continue to mate and thus sense pheromones of the opposite sex, and their recognition of other vertebrate odors isn’t tampered with in the least. The protzoa is simply able to manipulate the recognition of and reaction to the pheromones of one predator, that of the definitive host. To Sapolsky (and most of us interested in the long-term interplay between parasites and their host), this is evidence of how counter-intuitive and beautiful evolutionary process can be. Sapolsky takes the opportunity to highlight Toxoplasma gondii as a correction to teleological interpretations of evolution: its processes aren’t directional, aren’t progressive.  As he notes, “We are certainly not the most evolved species around, nor the least vulnerable. Nor the cleverest.” But the punctum of his message, to borrow a term from Roland Barthes (that which “pierces” the viewer/reader), is the statement, “we need phylogenetic humility.”

Charles Darwin on beauty

[From The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Chapter III: Maldonado]

July 26th, 1832

Maldonado is situated on the northern bank of the Plata, and not very far from the mouth of the estuary. It is a most quiet, forlorn, little town; built, as is universally the case in these countries, with the streets running at right angles to each other, and having in the middle a large plaza or square, which, from its size, renders the scantiness of the population more evident. It possesses scarcely any trade; the exports being confined to a few hides and living cattle. The inhabitants are chiefly landowners, together with a few shopkeepers and the necessary tradesmen, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, who do nearly all the business for a circuit of fifty miles round. The town is separated from the river by a band of sand-hillocks, about a mile broad: it is surrounded, on all other sides, by an open slightly-undulating country, covered by one uniform layer of fine green turf, on which countless herds of cattle, sheep, and horses graze. There is very little land cultivated even close to the town. A few hedges, made of cacti and agave, mark out where some wheat or Indian corn has been planted. The features of the country are very similar along the whole northern bank of the Plata. The only difference is, that here the granitic hills are a little bolder. The scenery is very uninteresting; there is scarcely a house, an enclosed piece of ground, or even a tree, to give it an air of cheerfulness. Yet, after being imprisoned for some time in a ship, there is a charm in the unconfined feeling of walking over boundless plains of turf. Moreover, if your view is limited to a small space, many objects possess beauty. Some of the smaller birds are brilliantly coloured; and the bright green sward, browsed short by the cattle, is ornamented by dwarf flowers, among which a plant, looking like the daisy, claimed the place of an old friend. What would a florist say to whole tracts, so thickly covered by the Verbena melindres, as, even at a distance, to appear of the most gaudy scarlet?

Jean-Henri Fabre on bees

The victuals are now collected: honey and flower-dust. If there is a pink carpet of sainfoin anywhere in the neighbourhood, tis there that the Mason goes plundering by preference, though it cost her a four hundred yards‘ journey every time. Her crop swells with honeyed exudations, her belly is floured with pollen. Back to the cell, which slowly fills; and back straightway to the harvest-field. And all day long, with not a sign of weariness, the same activity is maintained as long as the sun is high enough. When it is late, if the house is not yet closed, the Bee retires to her cell to spend the night there, head downwards, tip of her abdomen outside, a habit foreign to the Chalicodoma of the Sheds. Then and then alone the Mason rests; but it is a rest that is in a sense equivalent to work, for, thus placed, she blocks the entrance to the honey-store and defends her treasure against twilight or night marauders.

—Jean-Henri Fabre, “The Tribulations of the Mason Bee,” Mason Bees (1925)

"first contact," photograph by author.

Kalevi Kull on biosemiotics

Biosemiotics can be defined as the science of signs in living systems. A principal and distinctive characteristic of semiotic biology lays in the understanding that in living, entities do not interact like mechanical bodies, but rather as messages, the pieces of text. This means that the whole determinism is of another type […] The phenomena of recognition, memory, categorization, mimicry, learning, communication are thus among those of interest for biosemiotic research, together with the analysis of the application of the tools and notions of semiotics (text, translation, interpretation, semiosis, types of sign, meaning) in the biological realm.

Kull K. (1999). Biosemiotics in the twentieth century: a view from biology. Semiotica 127(1/4), 385–414.