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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Body Politic

I'm not a biologist, nor do I play one on TV. I do read several science magazines and the occasional book on science.  The "Wet" sciences aren't really even my main area of interest, however a lot of the new stuff on the inner workings of cells is fascinating. The most fun seems to come from the folks working on how an individual cell figures out that it, say, going to be part of a kidney rather than ulna. The exact mechanism, and I'm a layman on this point, seems to be that cellular differentiation is an ad hoc function regulated by RNA'a throwing switches on the chromosomes., and in communication with its peers. It sounds a lot like a political system to me, and I do know a bit about politics.  Every man or cell for himself is a poor way to run a society or body. How does a town full of people form allied movements that differentiate along impermeable membranes? How do neighboring tissues tell where a kneecap ends and cartilage ends. Why don't kneecaps grow on your elbows. Why aren't there National Rifle Association chapters in rural China? Physical distance, local culture, history preclude certain results, and almost make others inevitable. Cells talk to each other by passing proteins and bits of RNA between. Under the pressure of little microscopic neighborhood gossips proto-cells cede to the neighbors, find a niche and settle down to raise a family.  This is very sloppy and little feuds break out, but even those serve a purpose. Organs develop "skins" to give themselves structure and function. People develop blocs that give themselves power and function. Vote Left Testicle in 'O8  Parties are greater representations of coalitions of blocs. It doesn't take an overwhelming mass of  a population of either people or cells to elect one path over another. It's all downhill from there. Where the analogy breaks down is where people change their minds and overthrow their social society. If cells could do this most guys would turn into huge penises and women into walking breasts.

You've got to wonder, since we have a more primitive hominid in our immediate , why couldn't all the DNA to make that hominid still be coded in our DNA, just waiting for the proper RNA to make little junior a real knuckle dragger. Chickens to Dinosaurs should even be simpler. Not T Rex, but one of those little green ankle biters from Jurassic Park II. It would make a great little jungle pest, as if the tropics don't have enough problems already.

Alas, most biologists are far too busy doing, you know, actual research to look into the politics of cellular differentiation. I feel no such restriction. I've got lots of half baked physics postulates too, if anyone's interested.

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