The four basic categories of molecules for building life are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
Carbohydrates serve many purposes, from energy to structure to chemical communication, as monomers or polymers.
Lipids, which are hydrophobic, also have different purposes, including energy storage, structure, and signaling.
Proteins, made of amino acids in up to four structural levels, are involved in just about every process of life.
The nucleic acids DNA and RNA consist of four nucleotide building blocks, and each has different purposes.
The longer version
Life is so diverse and unwieldy, it may surprise you to learn that we can break it down into four basic categories of molecules. Possibly even more implausible is the fact that two of these categories of large molecules themselves break down into a surprisingly small number of building blocks. The proteins that make up all of the living things on this planet and ensure their appropriate structure and smooth function consist of only 20 different kinds of building blocks. Nucleic acids, specifically DNA, are even more basic: only four different kinds of molecules provide the materials to build the countless different genetic codes that translate into all the different walking, swimming, crawling, oozing, and/or photosynthesizing organisms that populate the third rock from the Sun.
Big Molecules with Small Building Blocks
The functional groups, assembled into building blocks on backbones of carbon atoms, can be bonded together to yield large molecules that we classify into four basic categories. These molecules, in many different permutations, are the basis for the diversity that we see among living things. They can consist of thousands of atoms, but only a handful of different kinds of atoms form them. It’s like building apartment buildings using a small selection of different materials: bricks, mortar, iron, glass, and wood. Arranged in different ways, these few materials can yield a huge variety of structures.
We encountered functional groups and the SPHONC in Chapter 3. These components form the four categories of molecules of life. These Big Four biological molecules are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. They can have many roles, from giving an organism structure to being involved in one of the millions of processes of living. Let’s meet each category individually and discover the basic roles of each in the structure and function of life.
You have met carbohydrates before, whether you know it or not. We refer to them casually as “sugars,” molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. A sugar molecule has a carbon backbone, usually five or six carbons in the ones we’ll discuss here, but it can be as few as three. Sugar molecules can link together in pairs or in chains or branching “trees,” either for structure or energy storage.
When you look on a nutrition label, you’ll see reference to “sugars.” That term includes carbohydrates that provide energy, which we get from breaking the chemical bonds in a sugar called glucose. The “sugars” on a nutrition label also include those that give structure to a plant, which we call fiber. Both are important nutrients for people.
Sugars serve many purposes. They give crunch to the cell walls of a plant or the exoskeleton of a beetle and chemical energy to the marathon runner. When attached to other molecules, like proteins or fats, they aid in communication between cells. But before we get any further into their uses, let’s talk structure.
The sugars we encounter most in basic biology have their five or six carbons linked together in a ring. There’s no need to dive deep into organic chemistry, but there are a couple of essential things to know to interpret the standard representations of these molecules.
Check out the sugars depicted in the figure. The top-left molecule, glucose, has six carbons, which have been numbered. The sugar to its right is the same glucose, with all but one “C” removed. The other five carbons are still there but are inferred using the conventions of organic chemistry: Anywhere there is a corner, there’s a carbon unless otherwise indicated. It might be a good exercise for you to add in a “C” over each corner so that you gain a good understanding of this convention. You should end up adding in five carbon symbols; the sixth is already given because that is conventionally included when it occurs outside of the ring.
On the left is a glucose with all of its carbons indicated. They’re also numbered, which is important to understand now for information that comes later. On the right is the same molecule, glucose, without the carbons indicated (except for the sixth one). Wherever there is a corner, there is a carbon, unless otherwise indicated (as with the oxygen). On the bottom left is ribose, the sugar found in RNA. The sugar on the bottom right is deoxyribose. Note that at carbon 2 (*), the ribose and deoxyribose differ by a single oxygen.
The lower left sugar in the figure is a ribose. In this depiction, the carbons, except the one outside of the ring, have not been drawn in, and they are not numbered. This is the standard way sugars are presented in texts. Can you tell how many carbons there are in this sugar? Count the corners and don’t forget the one that’s already indicated!
If you said “five,” you are right. Ribose is a pentose (pent = five) and happens to be the sugar present in ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Think to yourself what the sugar might be in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. If you thought, deoxyribose, you’d be right.
The fourth sugar given in the figure is a deoxyribose. In organic chemistry, it’s not enough to know that corners indicate carbons. Each carbon also has a specific number, which becomes important in discussions of nucleic acids. Luckily, we get to keep our carbon counting pretty simple in basic biology. To count carbons, you start with the carbon to the right of the non-carbon corner of the molecule. The deoxyribose or ribose always looks to me like a little cupcake with a cherry on top. The “cherry” is an oxygen. To the right of that oxygen, we start counting carbons, so that corner to the right of the “cherry” is the first carbon. Now, keep counting. Here’s a little test: What is hanging down from carbon 2 of the deoxyribose?
If you said a hydrogen (H), you are right! Now, compare the deoxyribose to the ribose. Do you see the difference in what hangs off of the carbon 2 of each sugar? You’ll see that the carbon 2 of ribose has an –OH, rather than an H. The reason the deoxyribose is called that is because the O on the second carbon of the ribose has been removed, leaving a “deoxyed” ribose. This tiny distinction between the sugars used in DNA and RNA is significant enough in biology that we use it to distinguish the two nucleic acids.
In fact, these subtle differences in sugars mean big differences for many biological molecules. Below, you’ll find a couple of ways that apparently small changes in a sugar molecule can mean big changes in what it does. These little changes make the difference between a delicious sugar cookie and the crunchy exoskeleton of a dung beetle.
Sugar and Fuel
A marathon runner keeps fuel on hand in the form of “carbs,” or sugars. These fuels provide the marathoner’s straining body with the energy it needs to keep the muscles pumping. When we take in sugar like this, it often comes in the form of glucose molecules attached together in a polymer called starch. We are especially equipped to start breaking off individual glucose molecules the minute we start chewing on a starch.
Double X Extra: A monomer is a building block (mono = one) and a polymer is a chain of monomers. With a few dozen monomers or building blocks, we get millions of different polymers. That may sound nutty until you think of the infinity of values that can be built using only the numbers 0 through 9 as building blocks or the intricate programming that is done using only a binary code of zeros and ones in different combinations.
Our bodies then can rapidly take the single molecules, or monomers, into cells and crack open the chemical bonds to transform the energy for use. The bonds of a sugar are packed with chemical energy that we capture to build a different kind of energy-containing molecule that our muscles access easily. Most species rely on this process of capturing energy from sugars and transforming it for specific purposes.
Polysaccharides: Fuel and Form
Plants use the Sun’s energy to make their own glucose, and starch is actually a plant’s way of storing up that sugar. Potatoes, for example, are quite good at packing away tons of glucose molecules and are known to dieticians as a “starchy” vegetable. The glucose molecules in starch are packed fairly closely together. A string of sugar molecules bonded together through dehydration synthesis, as they are in starch, is a polymer called a polysaccharide (poly = many; saccharide = sugar). When the monomers of the polysaccharide are released, as when our bodies break them up, the reaction that releases them is called hydrolysis.
Double X Extra: The specific reaction that hooks one monomer to another in a covalent bond is called dehydration synthesis because in making the bond–synthesizing the larger molecule–a molecule of water is removed (dehydration). The reverse is hydrolysis (hydro = water; lysis = breaking), which breaks the covalent bond by the addition of a molecule of water.
Although plants make their own glucose and animals acquire it by eating the plants, animals can also package away the glucose they eat for later use. Animals, including humans, store glucose in a polysaccharide called glycogen, which is more branched than starch. In us, we build this energy reserve primarily in the liver and access it when our glucose levels drop.
Whether starch or glycogen, the glucose molecules that are stored are bonded together so that all of the molecules are oriented the same way. If you view the sixth carbon of the glucose to be a “carbon flag,” you’ll see in the figure that all of the glucose molecules in starch are oriented with their carbon flags on the upper left.
The orientation of monomers of glucose in polysaccharides can make a big difference in the use of the polymer. The glucoses in the molecule on the top are all oriented “up” and form starch. The glucoses in the molecule on the bottom alternate orientation to form cellulose, which is quite different in its function from starch.
Storing up sugars for fuel and using them as fuel isn’t the end of the uses of sugar. In fact, sugars serve as structural molecules in a huge variety of organisms, including fungi, bacteria, plants, and insects.
The primary structural role of a sugar is as a component of the cell wall, giving the organism support against gravity. In plants, the familiar old glucose molecule serves as one building block of the plant cell wall, but with a catch: The molecules are oriented in an alternating up-down fashion. The resulting structural sugar is called cellulose.
That simple difference in orientation means the difference between a polysaccharide as fuel for us and a polysaccharide as structure. Insects take it step further with the polysaccharide that makes up their exoskeleton, or outer shell. Once again, the building block is glucose, arranged as it is in cellulose, in an alternating conformation. But in insects, each glucose has a little extra added on, a chemical group called an N-acetyl group. This addition of a single functional group alters the use of cellulose and turns it into a structural molecule that gives bugs that special crunchy sound when you accidentally…ahem…step on them.
These variations on the simple theme of a basic carbon-ring-as-building-block occur again and again in biological systems. In addition to serving roles in structure and as fuel, sugars also play a role in function. The attachment of subtly different sugar molecules to a protein or a lipid is one way cells communicate chemically with one another in refined, regulated interactions. It’s as though the cells talk with each other using a specialized, sugar-based vocabulary. Typically, cells display these sugary messages to the outside world, making them available to other cells that can recognize the molecular language.
Lipids: The Fatty Trifecta
Starch makes for good, accessible fuel, something that we immediately attack chemically and break up for quick energy. But fats are energy that we are supposed to bank away for a good long time and break out in times of deprivation. Like sugars, fats serve several purposes, including as a dense source of energy and as a universal structural component of cell membranes everywhere.
Fats: the Good, the Bad, the Neutral
Turn again to a nutrition label, and you’ll see a few references to fats, also known as lipids. (Fats are slightly less confusing that sugars in that they have only two names.) The label may break down fats into categories, including trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and cholesterol. You may have learned that trans fats are “bad” and that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, but what does it all mean?
Let’s start with what we mean when we say saturated fat. The question is, saturated with what? There is a specific kind of dietary fat call the triglyceride. As its name implies, it has a structural motif in which something is repeated three times. That something is a chain of carbons and hydrogens, hanging off in triplicate from a head made of glycerol, as the figure shows. Those three carbon-hydrogen chains, or fatty acids, are the “tri” in a triglyceride. Chains like this can be many carbons long.
Double X Extra: We call a fatty acid a fatty acid because it’s got a carboxylic acid attached to a fatty tail. A triglyceride consists of three of these fatty acids attached to a molecule called glycerol. Our dietary fat primarily consists of these triglycerides.
Triglycerides come in several forms. You may recall that carbon can form several different kinds of bonds, including single bonds, as with hydrogen, and double bonds, as with itself. A chain of carbon and hydrogens can have every single available carbon bond taken by a hydrogen in single covalent bond. This scenario of hydrogen saturation yields a saturated fat. The fat is saturated to its fullest with every covalent bond taken by hydrogens single bonded to the carbons.
Saturated fats have predictable characteristics. They lie flat easily and stick to each other, meaning that at room temperature, they form a dense solid. You will realize this if you find a little bit of fat on you to pinch. Does it feel pretty solid? That’s because animal fat is saturated fat. The fat on a steak is also solid at room temperature, and in fact, it takes a pretty high heat to loosen it up enough to become liquid. Animals are not the only organisms that produce saturated fat–avocados and coconuts also are known for their saturated fat content.
The top graphic above depicts a triglyceride with the glycerol, acid, and three hydrocarbon tails. The tails of this saturated fat, with every possible hydrogen space occupied, lie comparatively flat on one another, and this kind of fat is solid at room temperature. The fat on the bottom, however, is unsaturated, with bends or kinks wherever two carbons have double bonded, booting a couple of hydrogens and making this fat unsaturated, or lacking some hydrogens. Because of the space between the bumps, this fat is probably not solid at room temperature, but liquid.
You can probably now guess what an unsaturated fat is–one that has one or more hydrogens missing. Instead of single bonding with hydrogens at every available space, two or more carbons in an unsaturated fat chain will form a double bond with carbon, leaving no space for a hydrogen. Because some carbons in the chain share two pairs of electrons, they physically draw closer to one another than they do in a single bond. This tighter bonding result in a “kink” in the fatty acid chain.
In a fat with these kinks, the three fatty acids don’t lie as densely packed with each other as they do in a saturated fat. The kinks leave spaces between them. Thus, unsaturated fats are less dense than saturated fats and often will be liquid at room temperature. A good example of a liquid unsaturated fat at room temperature is canola oil.
A few decades ago, food scientists discovered that unsaturated fats could be resaturated or hydrogenated to behave more like saturated fats and have a longer shelf life. The process of hydrogenation–adding in hydrogens–yields trans fat. This kind of processed fat is now frowned upon and is being removed from many foods because of its associations with adverse health effects. If you check a food label and it lists among the ingredients “partially hydrogenated” oils, that can mean that the food contains trans fat.
Double X Extra: A triglyceride can have up to three different fatty acids attached to it. Canola oil, for example, consists primarily of oleic acid, linoleic acid, and linolenic acid, all of which are unsaturated fatty acids with 18 carbons in their chains.
Why do we take in fat anyway? Fat is a necessary nutrient for everything from our nervous systems to our circulatory health. It also, under appropriate conditions, is an excellent way to store up densely packaged energy for the times when stores are running low. We really can’t live very well without it.
Phospholipids: An Abundant Fat
You may have heard that oil and water don’t mix, and indeed, it is something you can observe for yourself. Drop a pat of butter–pure saturated fat–into a bowl of water and watch it just sit there. Even if you try mixing it with a spoon, it will just sit there. Now, drop a spoon of salt into the water and stir it a bit. The salt seems to vanish. You’ve just illustrated the difference between a water-fearing (hydrophobic) and a water-loving (hydrophilic) substance.
Generally speaking, compounds that have an unequal sharing of electrons (like ions or anything with a covalent bond between oxygen and hydrogen or nitrogen and hydrogen) will be hydrophilic. The reason is that a charge or an unequal electron sharing gives the molecule polarity that allows it to interact with water through hydrogen bonds. A fat, however, consists largely of hydrogen and carbon in those long chains. Carbon and hydrogen have roughly equivalent electronegativities, and their electron-sharing relationship is relatively nonpolar. Fat, lacking in polarity, doesn’t interact with water. As the butter demonstrated, it just sits there.
There is one exception to that little maxim about fat and water, and that exception is the phospholipid. This lipid has a special structure that makes it just right for the job it does: forming the membranes of cells. A phospholipid consists of a polar phosphate head–P and O don’t share equally–and a couple of nonpolar hydrocarbon tails, as the figure shows. If you look at the figure, you’ll see that one of the two tails has a little kick in it, thanks to a double bond between the two carbons there.
Phospholipids form a double layer and are the major structural components of cell membranes. Their bend, or kick, in one of the hydrocarbon tails helps ensure fluidity of the cell membrane. The molecules are bipolar, with hydrophilic heads for interacting with the internal and external watery environments of the cell and hydrophobic tails that help cell membranes behave as general security guards.
The kick and the bipolar (hydrophobic and hydrophilic) nature of the phospholipid make it the perfect molecule for building a cell membrane. A cell needs a watery outside to survive. It also needs a watery inside to survive. Thus, it must face the inside and outside worlds with something that interacts well with water. But it also must protect itself against unwanted intruders, providing a barrier that keeps unwanted things out and keeps necessary molecules in.
Phospholipids achieve it all. They assemble into a double layer around a cell but orient to allow interaction with the watery external and internal environments. On the layer facing the inside of the cell, the phospholipids orient their polar, hydrophilic heads to the watery inner environment and their tails away from it. On the layer to the outside of the cell, they do the same.
As the figure shows, the result is a double layer of phospholipids with each layer facing a polar, hydrophilic head to the watery environments. The tails of each layer face one another. They form a hydrophobic, fatty moat around a cell that serves as a general gatekeeper, much in the way that your skin does for you. Charged particles cannot simply slip across this fatty moat because they can’t interact with it. And to keep the fat fluid, one tail of each phospholipid has that little kick, giving the cell membrane a fluid, liquidy flow and keeping it from being solid and unforgiving at temperatures in which cells thrive.
Steroids: Here to Pump You Up?
Our final molecule in the lipid fatty trifecta is cholesterol. As you may have heard, there are a few different kinds of cholesterol, some of which we consider to be “good” and some of which is “bad.” The good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, in part helps us out because it removes the bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL, from our blood. The presence of LDL is associated with inflammation of the lining of the blood vessels, which can lead to a variety of health problems.
But cholesterol has some other reasons for existing. One of its roles is in the maintenance of cell membrane fluidity. Cholesterol is inserted throughout the lipid bilayer and serves as a block to the fatty tails that might otherwise stick together and become a bit too solid.
Cholesterol’s other starring role as a lipid is as the starting molecule for a class of hormones we called steroids or steroid hormones. With a few snips here and additions there, cholesterol can be changed into the steroid hormones progesterone, testosterone, or estrogen. These molecules look quite similar, but they play very different roles in organisms. Testosterone, for example, generally masculinizes vertebrates (animals with backbones), while progesterone and estrogen play a role in regulating the ovulatory cycle.
Double X Extra: A hormone is a blood-borne signaling molecule. It can be lipid based, like testosterone, or short protein, like insulin.
As you progress through learning biology, one thing will become more and more clear: Most cells function primarily as protein factories. It may surprise you to learn that proteins, which we often talk about in terms of food intake, are the fundamental molecule of many of life’s processes. Enzymes, for example, form a single broad category of proteins, but there are millions of them, each one governing a small step in the molecular pathways that are required for living.
Levels of Structure
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. A few amino acids strung together is called a peptide, while many many peptides linked together form a polypeptide. When many amino acids strung together interact with each other to form a properly folded molecule, we call that molecule a protein.
For a string of amino acids to ultimately fold up into an active protein, they must first be assembled in the correct order. The code for their assembly lies in the DNA, but once that code has been read and the amino acid chain built, we call that simple, unfolded chain the primary structure of the protein.
This chain can consist of hundreds of amino acids that interact all along the sequence. Some amino acids are hydrophobic and some are hydrophilic. In this context, like interacts best with like, so the hydrophobic amino acids will interact with one another, and the hydrophilic amino acids will interact together. As these contacts occur along the string of molecules, different conformations will arise in different parts of the chain. We call these different conformations along the amino acid chain the protein’s secondary structure.
Once those interactions have occurred, the protein can fold into its final, or tertiary structure and be ready to serve as an active participant in cellular processes. To achieve the tertiary structure, the amino acid chain’s secondary interactions must usually be ongoing, and the pH, temperature, and salt balance must be just right to facilitate the folding. This tertiary folding takes place through interactions of the secondary structures along the different parts of the amino acid chain.
The final product is a properly folded protein. If we could see it with the naked eye, it might look a lot like a wadded up string of pearls, but that “wadded up” look is misleading. Protein folding is a carefully regulated process that is determined at its core by the amino acids in the chain: their hydrophobicity and hydrophilicity and how they interact together.
In many instances, however, a complete protein consists of more than one amino acid chain, and the complete protein has two or more interacting strings of amino acids. A good example is hemoglobin in red blood cells. Its job is to grab oxygen and deliver it to the body’s tissues. A complete hemoglobin protein consists of four separate amino acid chains all properly folded into their tertiary structures and interacting as a single unit. In cases like this involving two or more interacting amino acid chains, we say that the final protein has a quaternary structure. Some proteins can consist of as many as a dozen interacting chains, behaving as a single protein unit.
A Plethora of Purposes
What does a protein do? Let us count the ways. Really, that’s almost impossible because proteins do just about everything. Some of them tag things. Some of them destroy things. Some of them protect. Some mark cells as “self.” Some serve as structural materials, while others are highways or motors. They aid in communication, they operate as signaling molecules, they transfer molecules and cut them up, they interact with each other in complex, interrelated pathways to build things up and break things down. They regulate genes and package DNA, and they regulate and package each other.
As described above, proteins are the final folded arrangement of a string of amino acids. One way we obtain these building blocks for the millions of proteins our bodies make is through our diet. You may hear about foods that are high in protein or people eating high-protein diets to build muscle. When we take in those proteins, we can break them apart and use the amino acids that make them up to build proteins of our own.
How does a cell know which proteins to make? It has a code for building them, one that is especially guarded in a cellular vault in our cells called the nucleus. This code is deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The cell makes a copy of this code and send it out to specialized structures that read it and build proteins based on what they read. As with any code, a typo–a mutation–can result in a message that doesn’t make as much sense. When the code gets changed, sometimes, the protein that the cell builds using that code will be changed, too.
Biohazard!The names associated with nucleic acids can be confusing because they all start with nucle-. It may seem obvious or easy now, but a brain freeze on a test could mix you up. You need to fix in your mind that the shorter term (10 letters, four syllables), nucleotide, refers to the smaller molecule, the three-part building block. The longer term (12 characters, including the space, and five syllables), nucleic acid, which is inherent in the names DNA and RNA, designates the big, long molecule.
DNA vs. RNA: A Matter of Structure
DNA and its nucleic acid cousin, ribonucleic acid, or RNA, are both made of the same kinds of building blocks. These building blocks are called nucleotides. Each nucleotide consists of three parts: a sugar (ribose for RNA and deoxyribose for DNA), a phosphate, and a nitrogenous base. In DNA, every nucleotide has identical sugars and phosphates, and in RNA, the sugar and phosphate are also the same for every nucleotide.
So what’s different? The nitrogenous bases. DNA has a set of four to use as its coding alphabet. These are the purines, adenine and guanine, and the pyrimidines, thymine and cytosine. The nucleotides are abbreviated by their initial letters as A, G, T, and C. From variations in the arrangement and number of these four molecules, all of the diversity of life arises. Just four different types of the nucleotide building blocks, and we have you, bacteria, wombats, and blue whales.
RNA is also basic at its core, consisting of only four different nucleotides. In fact, it uses three of the same nitrogenous bases as DNA–A, G, and C–but it substitutes a base called uracil (U) where DNA uses thymine. Uracil is a pyrimidine.
DNA vs. RNA: Function Wars
An interesting thing about the nitrogenous bases of the nucleotides is that they pair with each other, using hydrogen bonds, in a predictable way. An adenine will almost always bond with a thymine in DNA or a uracil in RNA, and cytosine and guanine will almost always bond with each other. This pairing capacity allows the cell to use a sequence of DNA and build either a new DNA sequence, using the old one as a template, or build an RNA sequence to make a copy of the DNA.
These two different uses of A-T/U and C-G base pairing serve two different purposes. DNA is copied into DNA usually when a cell is preparing to divide and needs two complete sets of DNA for the new cells. DNA is copied into RNA when the cell needs to send the code out of the vault so proteins can be built. The DNA stays safely where it belongs.
RNA is really a nucleic acid jack-of-all-trades. It not only serves as the copy of the DNA but also is the main component of the two types of cellular workers that read that copy and build proteins from it. At one point in this process, the three types of RNA come together in protein assembly to make sure the job is done right.
On Mother’s Day this year, we told you why, if you have biological children, those children are literally a part of you for life thanks to a phenomenon called microchimerism. When a woman is pregnant, some of the fetal cells slip past the barrier between mother and fetus and take up residence in the mother. What researchers hadn’t turned up in humans before now was that some of those cells can end up in the mother’s brain. Once there, according to a study published today in PLoS ONE, they can stick around for decades and, the researchers suggest, might have a link to Alzheimer’s disease. Note that is a big “might.”
The easiest way to tell if a fetal cell’s made it into a maternal tissue is to look for cells carrying a Y chromosome or a Y gene sequence (not all fetuses developing as male carry a Y chromosome, but that’s a post for another time). As you probably know, most women don’t carry a Y chromosome in their own cells (but some do; another post for another time). In this study, researchers examined postmortem brain tissue from 26 women who had no detectable neurological disease and 33 women who’d had Alzheimer’s disease; the women’s ages at death ranged from 32 to 101. They found that almost two thirds (37) of all of the women tested had evidence of the Y chromosome gene in their brains, in several brain regions. The blue spots in the image below highlight cells carrying these “male” genes a woman’s brain tissue.
Photo Credit: Chan WFN, Gurnot C, Montine TJ, Sonnen JA, Guthrie KA, et al. (2012) Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain. PLoS ONE 7(9): e45592. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045592
The researchers also looked at whether or not these blue spots were more (or less) frequent in the brains of women with Alzheimer’s disease compared to women who’d had no known neurological disease. Although their results hint at a possible association, it wasn’t significant. Because the pregnancy history of the women was largely unknown, there’s no real evidence here that pregnancy can heighten your Alzheimer’s risk or that being pregnant with or bearing a boy can help or hinder. As I discuss below, you can end up with some Y chromosome-bearing cells without ever having been pregnant.
Also, age could be an issue. Based on the reported age ranges of the group, the women without Alzheimer’s were on average younger at death (70 vs 79), with the youngest being only 32 (the youngest in Alzheimer’s group at death was 54). No one knows if the women who died at younger ages might later have developed Alzheimer’s.
Indeed, most of this group–Alzheimer’s or not–had these Y-chromosome cells present in the brain. The authors say that 18 of the 26 samples from women who’d had no neurologic disease were positive for these “male” cells–that’s 69%–while 19 of the 33 who had Alzheimer’s were. That’s 58%. In other words, a greater percentage of women who’d not had Alzheimer’s in life were carrying around these male-positive cells compared to women who had developed Alzheimer’s. The age difference might also matter here, though, if these microchimeric cells tend to fade with age, although the researchers did get a positive result in the brain of a woman who was 94 when she died.
Thus, the simple fact of having male-positive cells (ETA: or not enough of them) in the brain doesn’t mean You Will Develop Alzheimer’s, which is itself a complex disease with many contributing factors. The researchers looked at this potential link because some studies have found a higher rate of Alzheimer’s among women who’ve been pregnant compared to women who have not and an earlier onset among women with a history of pregnancy. The possible reasons for this association range from false correlation to any number of effects of pregnancy, childbearing, or parenting.
Nothing about this study means that migration of fetal cells to the brain is limited to cells carrying Y chromosomes. It’s just that in someone who is XX, it’s pretty straightforward to find a Y chromosome gene. Finding a “foreign” X-linked gene in an XX person would be much more difficult. Also, a woman doesn’t have to have borne a pregnancy to term to have acquired these fetal cells. As the authors observe, even women without sons can have these Y-associated cells from pregnancies that were aborted or ended prematurely or from a “vanished” male twin in a pregnancy that did go to term.
In fact, a woman doesn’t even have to have ever been pregnant at all to be carrying some cells with Y chromosomes. Another way you can end up with Y chromosome cells in an XX chromosome body is–get this–from having an older male sibling who, presumably, left a few cellular gifts behind in the womb where you later developed. As the oldest sibling, I can only assume I could have done the same for the siblings who followed me. So, if you’ve got an older sibling and have been pregnant before–could you be a double microchimera?
But wait. You could even be a triple microchimera! This microchimerism thing can be a two-way street. If you’re a woman with biological children, those children already carry around part of you in the nuclear DNA you contributed and all of the mitochondria (including mitochondrial DNA) in all of their cells. Yes, they get more DNA from you than from the father. But they might also be toting complete versions of your cells, just as you have cells from them, although fetus–>mother transfer is more common than mother–>fetus transfer. The same could have happened between you and your biological mother. If so, a woman could potentially be living with cells from her mother, older sibling, and her children mixed in with her own boring old self cells.
The triple microchimera thing might be a tad dizzying, particularly the idea that you could be walking around with your mother’s and sibling’s cells hanging out in You, a whole new level of family relationships. But if you’re a biological mother, perhaps you might find it comforting to know that a cellular part of you may accompany your child everywhere, even as your child is always on your mind–and possibly in it, too.
For decades, biology textbooks have stated this as fact: “Women are born with all the eggs, or oocytes they will ever have.”1 The assumption — which shapes research on infertility and developmental biology, as well as women’s mindsets about their biological clocks — is that as women age, they use up those reserves they are born with. With each menstrual cycle, egg by egg, the stockpile wears down.
But is it true that women can’t produce any new oocytes in their adult life? Over the past decade, some scientists have begun to question the long-held assumption, publishing evidence that they can isolate egg-producing stem cells from adult human ovaries.
Last week, biologist Allan Spradling of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Carnegie Institution for Science, cast a shadow over those findings with a new analysis of the ovaries of adult female mice, which have similar reproductive systems to humans. By his measures of new egg formation, which he has previously studied and characterized during fetal development, there were no signs of activity in the adults.
“Personally, I think it’s quite clear,” says Spradling. “All the evidence has always said this. When oocyte development is going on, you see cysts everywhere. When you look at adults, you don’t see any.”
An oocyte, or egg cell, surrounded by some supporting cells.
The new paper does little to change the direction of those researchers already pursuing the stem cells, though. Jonathan Tilly of Massachusetts General Hospital was among the first to publish evidence that mice and human females have adult germ-line stem cells that can make new eggs.
“There’s so much evidence now from so many labs that have purified these cells and worked with these cells,” says Tilly. “What I don’t find of value is to say these cells don’t exist.”
For now, the two sides remain fractured — Spradling sees weaknesses in the way Tilly and others have isolated cells from the ovaries and suspects that the properties of the cells could change when they’re outside the body. And Tilly proposes that Spradling’s new data could be interpreted in a different way that in fact supports the presence of stem cells.
For women hoping for a scientific breakthrough to treat infertility — or even those simply curious about how their own body works — a consensus on the answer would be nice. But the continued probing on both sides may be just as much a boon to women’s health. After all, it’s questions like these that drive science forward.
In his new study, Spradling labeled a spattering of cells in the ovaries of female mice with fluorescent markers to make them visible and watched them as the mice aged. If any labeled cells were egg-producing stem cells, he says, they would spread the fluorescence as they made clusters of new eggs.
“But you never see clusters,” Spradling says. “Not once.”
In the process of this study, though, Spradling made new observations about how egg cells develop into their final form in female mice, published in a second paper this month. As the precursor cells to eggs mature, they lump together into cysts, a phenomenon also seen in the flies that Spradling has spent decades studying. In flies, one cyst eventually forms one egg. But in the mice, he discovered, those cysts break apart and form multiple eggs.
“This actually leads us to propose a new mechanism for what determines the number of oocytes,” says Spradling. And, of course, that means a better understanding of reproductive biology.
On the side of those who are confident about the existence of adult ovarian stem cells, the field of fertility medicine could be revolutionized if the cells that Tilly has isolated from ovaries can form healthy egg cells that can be fertilized in vitro. These stem cells could also be a tool to study more basic questions on oocyte development and formation or a screening platform for fertility drugs. Tilly is confident enough in the research that he has founded a company, OvaScience, to pursue the commercial and clinical potential of isolating the stem cells.
“The value for the lay public is that we have a new tool in our arsenal,” says Tilly.
Spradling doesn’t argue that continued research in this area isn’t a good thing. “Scientific knowledge doesn’t just come from the proposal of ideas, but also from their rigorous tests,” he says. “I think the most powerful tool we have in medical science is basic research,” he adds, referencing research using cell and animal studies. Investigations of the basics of how and when oocytes form, he says, are the best way forward toward developing ways to improve egg cell formation or development and could even lead to infertility treatments.
So if it finds support from further studies, Spradling’s new work — which states bluntly right in its title that “Female mice lack adult germ-line stem cells” — needn’t be seen as bad news for those dreaming of a breakthrough in understanding fertility. Instead, whether or not egg stem cells end up having clinical value, it’s a step forward in advancing understanding about women’s reproductive biology.
As Spradling puts it: “You have a much better chance of actually helping someone with infertility if you know what the real biology is. Right now, we’re a ways from really understanding the full biology, but we’re making progress.”
1 Direct quote from the third edition of “Human Physiology: An Integrated Approach”, one published by Pearson Education in 2004 and used in medical school classes. Continue reading →
Food engineering has been on an incredibly strange journey, but there is none stranger (at least to me) than the concept of in vitro meat. Colloquially referred to as “shmeat,” a term born out of mashing up the phrase “sheets of meat,” in vitro meat may be available in our grocer’s refrigerator section in just a few years. But how exactly is shmeat produced and how does it compare to, you know, that which is derived from actual animals? Here, I hope to shed some light on this petri dish to kitchen dish phenomenon.
The shmeaty deets
When it comes to producing shmeat, scientists are taking advantage the extensive cell culture technologies that have been developed over the course of the 20th century (for a brief history of these developments, check this out). Because of what we have learned, we can easily determine the conditions under which cells grow best, and swiftly turn a few cells into a few million cells. However, things can get a little tricky when growing complex, three-dimensional tissues like steak or boneless chicken breast.
For instance, lets consider a living, breathing cow. Most people seem to enjoy fancy cuts like beef tenderloin, which, before the butcher gets to it, is located near the back of the cow. In order for that meat to be nice and juicy, it needs to have enough nutrients and oxygen to grow. In addition, muscles (in this case, the tenderloin) need stimulation, and in the cow (and us too!) that is achieved by flexing and relaxing.
If shmeat is to be successfully engineered, scientists need to replicate all of the complexities that occur during the normal life of an actual animal. While the technology for making shmeat is still being optimized, the components involved in this meat-making scheme successfully address many of the major issues with growing whole tissues in a laboratory.
The first step in culturing meat is to get some muscle cells from an animal. Because cells divide as they grow, a single animal could, in theory, provide enough cells to make meat for many, many people – and for a long period of time. However, the major hurdle is creating a three-dimensional tissue, you know, something that would actually resemble a steak.
Normally, cells will grow in a single layer on a petri dish, with a thickness that can only be measured by using a microscope. Obviously that serving size would not be very satisfying. In order to create that delicious three-dimensional look, feel, and taste, and be substantial enough to count as a meal, scientists have developed a way to grow the muscle cells on scaffold made of natural and edible material. As sheets of cells grow on these scaffolds, they are laid on top of each other to bulk up the shmeat (hence “sheets of meat”). But, in order for the cells on the inside of this 3D mass to grow as well as the cells on the outside, there has to be an sufficient way to deliver nutrients and oxygen to all cells.
Back to the tenderloin – when it is still in the cow, the cells that make up this piece of meat are in close contact to a series of veins, arteries, and capillaries. Termed vasculature, this system allows for the cells to obtain nutrients and oxygen, while simultaneously allowing cells to dump any waste into the blood stream. There are some suggestionsthat the shmeat can be vascularized (grown such that a network of blood vessels are formed); however, the nutrient delivery system most widely used at this point is something called a bioreactor.
This contraption is designed to support biologically active materials and how it works is actually quite cool. The cells are placed in the cylindrical bioreactor, which spins at a rate that balances multiple physical forces, which keep the entire cell mass fully submerged in liquid growth medium at all times. This growth medium is constantly refreshed, ensuring that the cells are always supplied with a maximum level of growth factors. In essence, the shmeat is kept in a perpetual free fall state while it grows.
But there is one last piece to the meat-growing puzzle, and that is regular exercise. If we look at meat on a purely biological level, we would see that it is just a series of cells arranged to form muscle tissue. Without regular stimulation, muscles will waste away (atrophy). Clearly, wasting shmeat would not be very efficient (or tasty). So, shmeat engineers have reduced the basic biological process involved with muscle stimulationto the most basic components – mechanical contraction and electrical stimulation. Though mechanical contraction (the controlled stretching and relaxing of the growing muscle fibers) has been shown to be effective, it is not exactly feasible on a large scale. Electrical stimulation – the process of administering regular electrical pulses to the cells – is actually more effective than mechanical contraction and can be widely performed. Therefore, it seems to be a more viable option for shmeat production.
Why in the world would we grow meat in a petri dish?
Grill it, braise it, broil it, roast it – as long as it tastes good, most people don’t usually question the origins of their meat. Doing so could easily make one think twice about what they are eating. Traditionally speaking, every slab of meat begins with a live animal – cow, pig, lamb, poultry (yes, despite what my grandmother says, this vegetarian does consider chicken to be meat) – with each animal only being able to provide a finite number of servings. While shmeat does ultimately begin with a live animal, only a few muscle, fat, and other cells are required.
Given the theoretical amount that can be produced with just a few cells, the efficiency of traditional meat-generating farms and slaughterhouses is becoming increasingly scrutinized. There are obvious costs – economic, agricultural, environmental – that are associated with livestock, and it has been proposed(article behind dumb pay wall, grrrr….) that shmeat engineering would substantially cut these costs. For instance, it has been projected that shmeat production could use up to 45% less energy, compared to traditional farming methods. Furthermore, relative to the current meat production process, culturing shmeat would use 99% less land, 82-96% less water, and would significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gasesproduced.
The impact of shmeat compared to tradtional agricultural processes. (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (14), pp 6117–6123)
But the potential benefits of making the shift toward shmeat (as opposed to meat) doesn’t stop with its positive environmental impact. From a nutritional standpoint, it is possible to produce shmeat in a way that would significantly reduce the amount of saturated fat it contains. Additionally, there are technologies that would allow shmeat to be enriched with heart-healthy omega-3 fats, as well as other types of polyunsaturated fats. In essence, shmeat could possibly help combat our growing obesity epidemic, as well as the associated illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. That’s *if* it can be produced in a way that is both affordable and widely available (more on that in a bit).
In terms of health, switching to shmeat would improve more than our waistlines. Because shmeat would be produced in a sterile environment, the incidence of E. coli and other bacterial and/or viral contamination would be next to nothing relative to current meat production methods. On a more superficial level, shmeat technology would allow for the introduction of some very exotic meats into the mainstream. Because this technology does not require an animal to be slaughtered (another good reason that supports shmeat productions) and it is not limited to the more common sources of meat, it would be entirely possible to make things like panda sausage and crocodile burgers. But, of course, getting people to actually eat meat grown in a test-tube is another issue…
The limitations of shmeat
Now that I’ve just spent a few paragraphs singing shmeat’s praises, it is probably best that I fill you in on some of the major roadblocks associated with shmeat production. According to scientists, there are two main concerns: the first is that shmeat production will not be subjected to the normal regulatory (homeostatic) mechanisms that naturally occur in animals (scientists are having trouble figuring out how to replicate these processes); and the second is that shmeat engineering technology has not evolved enough so that it can occur on an industrial scale. Because of these issues and others, the cost of culturing shmeat in the laboratory is very high. But, there has always got to be a starting point. As the technologies advance, the cost-production ratios will decrease and, eventually, shmeat will find its way to the dining table – our dining table.
Interestingly, the folks at PETA are all for shmeat and offered a one million dollar prize to the first group who could come up with the technology to make shmeat commercially available by June, 2012. Obviously, that did not happen, and the contest has been extended to January 2013 (this offer has been on the table since 2008). But, the first tastes test for shmeat hamburgers is going down in October of this year.
At the moment, the largest piece of shmeat to be created is about the size of a contact lens and my guess is that, barring unforeseen technological breakthroughs, this reward will go unclaimed for a long, long time. But, many a miracle has been known to happen in about nine months time…
A few final thoughts on shmeat
With the world population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, which will be accompanied by a major increase in the need for the amount of food produced, perhaps shmeat technology will become one of the critical innovations required for our collective survival on this planet. But, there is just one thing: the ick factor. It is a little hard for me to weigh in on this issue because almost all meat seems gross to me (unless it is a pulled pork sandwich, lovingly made by my long-time pal and professional chef – Julie Hall). While most of my peers have less of an aversion to meat, I can’t imagine that they would eagerly line up for a whopping serving of lab-grown shmeat.
But, say scientists finally figure it out and shmeat production is scaled up for mass consumption – how will the agricultural sector react? As of right now, the agricultural industry in the USA is worth over $70 billion, with a yearly beef consumptiontipping over the 26 million pound mark (of which 8.7% is exported). Shmeat probably has definitely gotten the attention of cattle farmers (and other meat farmers/production companies) and, given the size of this industry, I wonder how much muscle will be used to block shmeat from becoming a household phenomenon.
Over all, I think that shmeat is a revolutionary idea as it could have a significant impact on humanity. However, there are many complex questions that need to be both asked andanswered. As excited as I am at the thought of not having to kill an animal to eat a steak, I still remain skeptical (though this sentiment may not have been fully present for the majority of this post). Will shmeat be produced in such a way that it will be indistinguishable from traditional meat? Additionally, will shmeat live up to all of these expectations? I am going to try and keep a positive outlook with this one. Perhaps the next time I actually step foot in a kitchen to prepare a meal, I’ll follow Randy’s lead by making a shmeatloaf, served alongside a heaping side of mashed potatoes. Now that’s some pretty cool kitchen science.
And now, an oldie but a goodie (let it be known that I am in love with Stephen Colbert):
You may have had the experience: A medication you and a friend both take causes terrible side effects in you, but your friend experiences none. (The running joke in our house is, if a drug has a side-effect, we’ve had it.) How does that happen, and why would a drug that’s meant to, say, stabilize insulin levels, produce terrible gastrointestinal side effects, too? A combination of techy-tech scientific approaches might help answer those questions for you — and lead to some solutions.
It’s no secret I love lab technology. I’m a technophile. A geek. I call my web site “Biotechnically Speaking.” So when I saw this paper in the September issue of Nature Biotechnology, well, I just had to write about it.
The paper is entitled, “Multiplexed mass cytometry profiling of cellular states perturbed by small-molecule regulators.” If you read that and your eyes glazed over, don’t worry –- the article is way more interesting than its title.
Those trees on the right are called SPADE trees. They map cellular responses to different stimuli in a collection of human blood cells. Credit: (c) 2012 Nature America [Nat Biotechnol, 30:858--67, 2012]
Here’s the basic idea: The current methods drug developers use to screen potential drug compounds –- typically a blend of high-throughput imaging and biochemical assays – aren’t perfect. If they were, drugs wouldn’t fail late in development. Stanford immunologist Garry Nolan and his team, led by postdoc Bernd Bodenmiller (who now runs his own lab in Zurich), figured part of that problem stems from the fact that most early drug testing is done on immortalized cell lines, rather than “normal” human cells. Furthermore, the tests that are run on those cells aren’t as comprehensive as they could be, meaning potential collateral effects of the compounds might be missed. Nolan wanted to show that flow cytometry, a cell-analysis technique frequently used in immunology labs, can help reduce that failure rate by measuring drug impacts more holistically.
Nolan is a flow cytometry master. As he told me in 2010, he’s been using the technique for more than three decades, and even used a machine now housed in the Smithsonian.
In flow cytometry, researchers treat cells with reagents called antibodies, which are immune system proteins that recognize and bind to specific proteins on cell surfaces. Each type of cell has a unique collection of these proteins, and by studying those collections, it is possible to differentiate and count the different populations.
Suppose researchers wanted to know how many T cells of a specific type were present in a patient’s blood. They might treat those cells with antibodies that recognize a protein known as CD3 to pick those out. By adding additional antibodies, they can then select different T-cell subpopulations, such as CD4-positive helper T cells and CD8-positive cytotoxic T cells, both of which help you mount immune responses.
Cells of the immune system Source: http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/scireport/chapter6.asp
In a basic flow cytometry experiment, each antibody is labeled with a unique fluorescent dye –- the antibody targeting CD3 might be red, say, and the CD4 antibody, green. The cells stream past a laser, one by one. The laser (or lasers –- there can be as many as seven) excites the dye molecules decorating the cell surface, causing them to fluoresce. Detectors capture that light and give a count of how many total cells were measured and the types of cells. The result is a kind of catalog of the cell population. For immune cells, for example, that could be the number of T cells, B cells (which, among other things, help you “remember” previous invaders), and macrophages (the big cells that chomp up invaders and infected cells). By comparing the cellular catalogs that result under different conditions, researchers gain insight into development, disease, and the impact of drugs, among other things.
But here’s the problem: Fluorescent dyes aren’t lasers, producing light of exactly one particular color. They absorb and emit light over a range of colors, called a spectrum. And those spectra can overlap, such that when a researcher thinks she’s counting CD4 T cells, she may actually be counting some macrophages. That overlap leads to all sorts of experimental optimization issues. An exceptionally talented flow cytometrist can assemble panels of perhaps 12 or so dyes, but it might take months to get everything just right.
That’s where the mass cytometry comes in. Commercialized by DVS Sciences, mass cytometry is essentially the love-chid of flow cytometry and mass spectrometry, combining the one-cell-at-a-time analysis of the former with the atomic precision of the latter. Mass spectrometry identifies molecules based on the ratio of their mass to their charge. In DVS’ CyTOF mass cytometer, a flowing stream of cells is analyzed not by shining a laser on them, but by nuking them in superhot plasma. The nuking reduces the cell to its atomic components, which the CyTOF then measures.
Specifically, the CyTOF looks for heavy atoms called lanthanides, elements found in the first of the two bottom rows of the periodic table, like gadolinium, neodymium, and europium. These elements never naturally occur in biological systems and so make useful cellular labels. More to the point, the mass spectrometer is specific enough that these signals basically don’t overlap. The instrument will never confuse gadolinium for neodymium, for instance. Researchers simply tag their antibodies with lanthanides rather than fluorophores, and voila! Instant antibody panel, no (or little) optimization required.
Periodic Table of Cupcakes, with lanthanides in hot pink frosting. Source: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jpmoore/the-periodic-table-of-cupcakes
Now back to the paper. Nolan (who sits on DVS Sciences’ Scientific Advisory Board) and Bodenmiller wanted to see if mass cytometry could provide the sort of high-density, high-throughput cellular profiling that is required for drug development. The team took blood cells from eight donors, treated them with more than two dozen different drugs over a range of concentrations, added a dozen stimuli to which blood cells can be exposed in the body, and essentially asked, for each of the pathways we want to study, in each kind of cell in these patients’ blood, what did the drug do?
To figure that out, they used a panel of 31 lanthanides –- 10 to sort out the cell types they were looking at in each sample, 14 to monitor cellular signaling pathways, and 7 to identify each sample.
I love that last part, about identifying the samples. The numbers in this experiment are kind of staggering: 12 stimuli x 8 doses x 14 cell types x 14 intracellular markers per drug, times 27 drugs, is more than half-a-million pieces of data. To make life easier on themselves, the researchers pooled samples 96 at a time in individual tubes, adding a “barcode” to uniquely identify each one. That barcode (called a “mass-tag cellular barcode,” or MCB) is essentially a 7-bit binary number made of lanthanides rather than ones and zeroes: one sample would have none of the 7 reserved markers (0000000); one sample would have one marker (0000001); another would have another (0000010); and so on. Seven lanthanides produce 128 possible combinations, so it’s no sweat to pool 96. They simply mix those samples in a single tube and let the computer sort everything out later.
This graphic summarizes a boatload of data on cell signaling pathways impacted by different drugs. Credit: (c) 2012 Nature America [Nat Biotechnol, 30:858--67, 2012]
When all was said and done, the team was able to draw some conclusions about drug specificity, person-to-person variation, cell signaling, and more. Basically, and not surprisingly, some of the drugs they looked at are less specific than originally thought -– that is, they affect their intended targets, but other pathways as well. That goes a long way towards explaining side effects. But more to the point, they proved that their approach may be used to drive drug-screening experiments.
A case of ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Samir.
A two-hit punch in the gut might explain why some people find themselves alone among their closest relatives in having inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The double gut punches come in the form of a compromised intestinal wall coupled with a poorly behaved immune system, say Emory researchers, whose work using mice was published in the journal Immunity. IBDs include ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, the latter of which is slightly more common in women.
An inflamed gut is the key feature of IBD, which affects about 600,000 people in the United States each year. Typical symptoms include bloody diarrhea, fever, and cramps, which can come and go with bouts of severe inflammation punctuating relatively calm periods. The going explanation for these disorders is a wonky immune system, but some breach of the barrier that keeps your gut contents in their place is also implicated. Researchers also have identified a link between bouts of gastroenteritis–known around my house as “throw-up” illnesses–and development of IBD. What’s remained unclear is how people who have these so-called “leaky guts” don’t develop a disease like Crohn’s when a close family member with a leaky gut does.
These hints in humans led the Emory investigators to examine the interaction of a compromised gut and the immune system in mice. The mice in the study had ‘leaky’ gut walls because they lacked a protein that usually ties cells together into water-tight sheets. Without these proteins sealing up the intestinal lining, bacteria and other components can make their way their deeper into the intestinal wall, triggering chronic inflammation.
The thing is, these mice with their leaky guts don’t develop colitis spontaneously, a situation, the investigators hypothesized, that reflects families full of people with leaky guts but rarely IBD. Permeable intestines alone aren’t enough. Some other dysfunction related to the immune system, they figured, must pile onto that leakiness and bring on the inflammatory disorder.
If you’re an immunologist–which I am not–an obvious choice for investigation is a class of immune cells called T cells. These cells come in a dizzying array of types, but one way to narrow them down relies on a protein that some but not all of them make. Pulling out the T cells that make this protein, says Timothy Denning, PhD, a mucosal immunologist at Emory and study author, is “the simplest way” to start examining the immune system involvement because these cells play a ton of roles in balancing different immune responses. So, they first collected the T cells carrying this protein from the mouse intestines.
“There are good and bad” versions of T cells carrying these identifier molecules, though, says Denning, so the next step was to find the “good” ones that might be protecting mice in spite of their sieve-like intestinal linings. To achieve that goal required some fancier lab moves. “We stimulated the cells and looked at the cytokines (immune signaling molecules) they make,” explains Charles Parkos, MD, PhD, an experimental pathologist and mucosal immunologist at Emory and also a paper author. “We found that the cells in the mice that were better protected predominantly secreted TGF-beta, a prototypic marker for ‘good’ cells.”
One of the things T cells do with TGF-beta is to talk to B cells, another class of immune cell. B cells take responsibility for remembering what’s attacked you in the past and marshaling forces if it attacks again. Also, when B cells are stimulated, explains Parkos, one way they respond is to release proteins–antibodies–that target the offending invaders. In the gut, the kind of antibody the B cells make in response to the TGF-beta message is immunoglobulin A, or IgA. This antibody “keeps bacteria in check,” says Denning, and also probably “broadly neutralizes lots of different microorganisms” in the intestines, adds Parkos.
The Emory-based team found that when the leaky-gut mice also had an IgA deficiency, they became more open to the types of immune cells that cause gut inflammation. The animals also were far more susceptible to colitis triggered by a chemical treatment in the lab and had much worse disease. Without the IgA, the mice couldn’t dampen inflammation triggered by bacteria slipping through the intestinal breaches. The results of this two-step physiological fail, in mice, at least: severe inflammatory gut disease.
Denning cautions that these results in mice don’t suggest a rush to TGF-beta or IgA treatment for inflammatory diseases. “TGF-beta has many effects and on many different cell types, and too much is not a good thing because it’s known to play a role in fibrosis and cancer,” says Denning. “If your child had IBD, the last thing you’d want to do is to give TGF-beta.” Much more work has to be done, he adds, for a better understanding of the implications of these results before anyone starts talking about therapies. Parkos agrees. “To our knowledge, administration of TGF-beta is not a viable therapy.”
The same applies for IgA, Denning says. “We couldn’t just take any old B cells and get them to make IgA and put it in and hope that it would do something,” he says. The reason, he explains, is because B cells make many different types of IgA molecules specific to foreign invaders they encounter, a process that happens on the spot, not in a lab dish. “We need to understand much more about the basic mechanisms, but we do believe that these pathways would be critical to induce in people who are more susceptible to IBD, such as first-degree relatives.”
Some research groups are conducting trials to treat IBDs with helminth worms–intestinal parasites–on the hypothesis that their presence would induce a balance in the immune system and tamp down an overactive inflammatory response. The balance in this case is supposed to be between two competing aspects of the immune system, called Th1 and Th2. But one issue in these intestinal inflammatory disorders, says Denning, is that Crohn’s is linked to Th1 hyperactivity while ulcerative colitis is associated with Th2.
Yet the worms appear to show some beneficial effects in both disorders, in spite of the different involvement of Th1 and Th2. The TGF-beta signaling effect on IgA that the Emory group identified operates by a third component, tentatively identified as Th3. Both Denning and Parkos are intrigued by the possibility that the presence of helminths might trigger this pathway, rather than influencing Th1 or Th2, explaining why worm treatment has sometimes proved useful for both Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis.
As for why IBD arises, the researchers hope their findings answer some questions. “There are different camps in the IBD community,” says Parkos. “Some say immune system, some say barrier, others say genetics or environment.” What they have with their results, he says, is evidence showing that a leak alone is not enough and that a wonky immune system alone is not enough. But the double-whammy of a leaky gut and an absence of immune protection “dramatically increase susceptibility to disease, and that helps explain why diseases are so complicated,” he says.
The use of parasitic worms for these inflammatory diseases arose from the concept of the hygiene hypothesis, the idea that we’re too clean in the modern developed world, leading to an immune imbalance that can include chronic inflammation and autoimmune disorders. Asked about any links between the hygiene hypothesis and this pathway to IBD they identified in mice, Denning says, “It’s not obviously all about the parasites. That’s just one key thing–it’s probably an exposure to a lot of different types of things in your gut and airways.” He describes the immune system as being a thermostat that registers a specific set-point early on based on these exposures. This set-point, he says, is lower in people who grow up in developed countries like the United States and leads to a “trigger-happy immune system that is ready to fire much more easily.”
That doesn’t mean that a worm infection or just being dirty will prevent your developing IBD. That said, these immunologists both have the same general advice for parents regarding their children. “Being too clean is not a good thing,” they agree. As immunologists, he adds, “We feel exactly the opposite. Go play in the dirt.”
Human ovum (egg). The zona pellucida is a thick clear girdle surrounded by the cells of the corona radiata (radiant crown). Via Wikimedia Commons.
It was September of 2006. Due to certain events taking place on a certain evening after a certain bottle (or two) of wine, my body was transformed into a human incubator. While I will not describe the events leading up to that very moment, I will dissect the way in which we propagate our species through a magnificent process called fertilization.
During the fertilization play, there are two stars: the sperm cell and the egg cell. The sperm cell hails from a male and is the end product of a series of developmental stages occurring in the testes. The egg cell (or ovum), which is produced by a female, is the largest cell in the human body and becomes a fertilizable entity as a result of the ovulatory process. But to truly understand what is happening at the moment of fertilization, it is important to know more about the cells from which all human life is derived.
Act I: Of sperm and eggs
A sperm cell is described as having a “head” section and a “tail” section. The head, which is shaped like a flattened oval, contains most of the cellular components, including DNA. The head also contains an important structure called an acrosome, which is basically a sac containing enzymes that will help the sperm fuse with an egg (more about the acrosome below). The role of the tail portion of sperm is to act as a propeller, allowing these cells to “swim.” At the top of the tail, near where it meets the head, are a ton of tiny structures called mitochondria. These kidney-shaped components are the powerhouses of all cells, and they generate the energy required for the sperm tail to move the sperm toward its target: the egg.
The egg is a spherical cell containing the usual components, including DNA and mitochondria. However, it differs from other human cells thanks to the presence of a protective shell called the zona pellucida. The egg cell also contains millions of tiny sacs, termed cortical granules, that serve a similar function to the acrosome in sperm cells (more on the granules below).
Act II: A sperm cell’s journey to the center of the universefemale reproductive system
Given the cyclical nature of the female menstrual cycle, the window for fertilization during each cycle is finite. However, the precise number of days per month a women is fertile remains unclear. On the low end, the window of opportunity lasts for an estimated two days, based on the survival time of the sperm and egg. On the high end, the World Health Organization estimates a fertility window of 10 days. Somewhere in the middle lies a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which suggests that six is the magic number of days.
Assuming the fertility window is open, getting pregnant depends on a sperm cell making it to where the egg is located. Achieving that goal is not an easy feat. To help overcome the odds, we have evolved a number of biological tactics. For instance, the volume of a typical male human ejaculate is about a half-teaspoon or more and is estimated to contain about 300 million sperm cells. To become fully active, sperm cells require modification. The acidic environment of the vagina helps with that modification, allowing sperm to gain what is called hyperactive motility, in which its whip-like tail motors it along toward the egg.
Once active, sperm cells begin their long journey through the female reproductive system. To help guide the way, the cells around the female egg emit a chemical substance that attracts sperm cells. The orientation toward these chemicals is called chemotaxis and helps the sperm cells swim in the right direction (after all, they don’t have eyes). Furthermore, sperm get a little extra boost by the contraction of the muscles lining the female reproductive tract, which aid in pushing the little guys along. But, despite all of these efforts, sperm cell death rates are quite high, and only about 200 sperm cells actually make it to the oviduct (also called the fallopian tube), where the egg awaits.
Act III: Egg marks the spot
With the target in sight, the sperm cells make a beeline for the egg. However, for successful fertilization, only a single sperm cell can fuse with the egg. If an egg fuses with more than one sperm, the outcome can be anything from a failure of fertilization to the development of an embryo and fetus, known as a partial hydatidiform mole, that has a complete extra set of chromosomes and will not survive. Luckily, the egg has ways to help ensure only one sperm fuses with it.
When it reaches the egg, the sperm cell attaches to the surface of the zona pellucida, a protective shell for the egg. For the sperm to fuse with the egg, it must first break through this shell. Enter the sperm cell’s acrosome, which acts as an enzymatic drill. This “drilling,” in combination with the propeller movement of the sperm’s tail, helps to create a hole so that the sperm cell can access the juicy bits of the egg.
This breach of the zona pellucida and fusion of the sperm and egg sets off a rapid cascade of events to block other sperm cells from penetrating the egg’s protective shell. The first response is a shift in the charge of the egg’s cell membrane from negative to positive. This change in charge creates a sort of electrical force field, repelling other sperm cells.
Though this response is lightning fast, it is a temporary measure. A more permanent solution involves the cortical granuleswithin the egg. These tiny sacs release their contents, causing the zona pellucida to harden like the setting of concrete. In effect, the egg–sperm fusion induces the egg to construct a virtually impenetrable wall. Left outside in the cold, the other, unsuccessful sperm cells die within 48 hours.
Now that the sperm–egg fusion has gone down, the egg start the maturation required for embryo-fetal development. The fertilized egg, now called a zygote, begins its journey into the womb and immediately begins round after round of cell division, over a few weeks resulting in a multicellular organism with a heart, lungs, brain, blood, bones, muscles, and hair. It’s an amazing phenomenon that I’m honored to have experienced (although I didn’t know I was until several weeks later).
The Afterword: A note on genetics
A normal human cell that is not a sperm or an egg will contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46 chromosomes. Any deviation from this number of chromosomes will lead to developmental misfires that in most cases results in a non-viable embryo. However, in some instances, a deviation from 46 chromosomes allows for fetal development and birth. The most well-known example is Trisomy 21(having three copies of the 21st chromosome per cell instead of two), also called Down’s Syndrome.
The egg and sperm cells are unlike any other cell in our body. They’re special enough to have a special name, gametes, and they each contain one set of chromosomes, or 23 chromosomes. Because they have half the typical number per cell, when the egg and sperm cell fuse, the resulting zygote contains the typical chromosome number of 46. Now you know how we get half of our genes from our father (who made the sperm cell) and half from our mother (who made the egg cell). Did I just put in your head an image of your parents having sex? It’s the birds and the bees, folks—it applies to everyone!
All text and art except as otherwise noted: Jeanne Garbarino, Double X Science Editor
World Health Organization. “A prospective multicentre trial of the ovulation method of natural family planning. III. Characteristics of the menstrual cycle and of the fertile phase,” Fertil Steril(1983);40:773-778
Allen J. Wilcox, et al. “Timing of Sexual Intercourse in Relation to Ovulation — Effects on the Probability of Conception, Survival of the Pregnancy, and Sex of the Baby,” New England Journal of Medicine, (1995); 333:1517-1521
Poland ML, Moghisse KS, Giblin PT, Ager JW,Olson JM. “Variation of semen measures within normal men,” Fertil Steril (1985);44:396-400
Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. “Fertilization,” Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002.
Nope. This island does not represent your genes. (Source)
When you read news stories about what affects a developing human in the womb or how cancer or obesity arises, you probably also see references to genes and environment. Some articles may focus on genes versus environment, or mention that something is “mostly” genetic or that the “environment” contributes to a disorder or trait in some way. What some people may not realize is that “environment” to a scientist talking about genetics may be something very different from “environment” to a non-scientist reading a news article. While a scientist may be vividly imagining a bustling microenvironment of native molecules in the way only scientists seem to do, the general reader may simply be thinking about “toxins” or “chemicals.” That’s why Double X Science is here to help with a primer on what those scientist types may mean when they talk about genes and environment. See how useful we are? Tell your friends! (Speaking of environmental influences… ). Where does environment begin and end? Let’s begin at the end No gene is an island. Your genes consist in part of a special codethat is really an instruction manual. Your cellsrely on internal translators to decode these instructions and use them as a guide to make various proteins, the molecules that give your cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, and you much of their structure and function. Proteins do thousands of jobs, from breaking down food to building and replacing tissues (news release) to governing cell division. Most of your cells are engaged in making proteins, a complex, exquisitely regulated and multi-step process. But they don’t do it in a vacuum. That code the cell uses to build the protein? That instruction manual is susceptible to all kinds of interference. Pages get torn out or folded over or stuck together. The words of the code can be changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes unmistakably, and all kinds of factors can jumble up those words so that cell ends up making a protein that isn’t quite what was intended. It’s even possible to use the cellular version of Liquid Paper(TM) to mask the code so that the cell doesn’t recognize its existence. Sometimes, these changes have no observable effect. Sometimes, they have big bad effects, such as disease, or helpful outcomes, such as disease resistance. That code sits in a cell in a body (you) made of trillions of cells doing hundreds of different jobs, taking in things from the environment, playing host to millions of other organisms (themselves an environment), altering and shifting with every passing second as the whole system works to keep you together and functioning within certain acceptable limits for human life. All of these processes can influence the code, leading the cell to use it, change it, use only certain parts of it, Liquid Paper over it, tweak what results from its instructions, or just ignore it. It’s impossible for any code in that situation to function in the total absence of influence from its environment, in part because the code itself is just the beginning. Much of the environment’s influence is reflected in what the cell does with the instructions, not just what the instructions say. This multitude of environmental influences is one reason that even people with identical genetic codes can have differences in diseases we think of as being largely genetic. No gene–no code–is an island. You are not your genes. You are your genes and your environment. No nucleus is an island. Most of our genes are packaged neatly with the rest of our DNA around molecular spools inside a cellular vault called the nucleus. This vault is a choosy sentry, letting in only certain molecules carrying proper ID. Yet inside the nucleus, there is an environment. This environment is not “toxins” or “chemicals,” the things that many people probably think of when someone says “environment” and talks about genes. But it is a busy place with its own milieu. Some parts of the code are in use, some sit quiet, and many molecules bustle and hustle to maintain, copy, process, or protect these important instructions. Every little bit of this hustle and bustle can influence some aspect of what happens to a code in the nucleus, interfering with or enhancing its use or resulting in accidental changes that may have big effects further down the line. The nucleus is the final stop in the chain of environmental influence, wherever that influence may originate. No cell is an island. Outside of that vault is the big, wide world of the cell. The cell is the molecular version of a busy metropolis (see beautiful video, The Inner Life of the Cell, below), a complex system of cellular highways that the cell uses to deliver packages internally, take in deliveries from the outside world, and transfer the millions of molecules it’s using and making to the right places at the right time. There’s a generator, a recycling center, guards at the gate, and a protein production facility and processing plant, complete with a post office. And that cell sits in an environment, usually, of many many other cells, also busy with their duties. What happens outside of that cell affects the inside of the cell, altering traffic flows, protein production and packaging, signaling and delivery along the routes, and, ultimately, processes inside the vault called the nucleus, the final destination in the chain of environmental effects. From outside the cell, through the cell, and to the nucleus, every step along the way is one that environment can affect, all the way down to what the cell does with its genes–the codes–for the proteins it makes.
No tissue or organ is an island. A lot of cells working together to do the same thing in your body make up a tissue. Tissues combined together to perform a function are an organ. Let’s take the organ named after living, the liver. It keeps you alive by filtering your blood and reconstructing substances that might harm your cells into less-harmful compounds. Just about everything you ingest gets passed through here. When the liver takes up something like ethanol, the alcohol we ingest at wine o’ clock, and gets to work making it less awful for your body, guess what does that work? The cells that make up the liver. The liver’s environment is their environment is each individual cell’s environment, and eventually, the influence will pass to the nucleus, the final destination in the chain of environmental influence, where the code lies. You are not an island. And whatever you encounter in this world may well influence you right down to the level of your genes. But while many people might think of “toxins” or “chemicals” when they think of environmental influences on genes, your chemical exposures–and chemicals include oxygen, water, body fluids, nutrients and not-so-nutrients in your foods, medications you may take–are among many, many examples of environmental factors that may reach via a chain reaction all the way to your genes. Some of these factors affect your genes by way of your sensory system: A hug, an angry encounter, a sick child, a laugh with a friend–you respond to each of these environmental influences, often by way of hormones that have a chat with your cells. Your cells respond by adjusting how they use the code in the nucleus so that in the face of anger or love or worry, your body still functions within the essential parameters of life. Below, we list with tongue slightly in cheek a sampling of other factors that constitute an “environment” that could influence your genes and how your cell uses them and the proteins they encode. Whether you know it or not, you’re encountering a million factors every day, big and small, that may trigger some effect way down there in the nuclear vaults of your cells, one that reverberates body wide. Some examples of “environment” that might influence genes Environmental influence on genes and how your cells use their instructions and the resulting proteins can come from almost anywhere, any factor, from outside of you and within you. It’s not just about exposures to “bad” chemicals or “toxins.” While the list of potential environmental factors influencing genes and how the cell uses them is practically infinite, we give you just a few examples for thought below:
Your parents, siblings, friends, extended family, co-workers, soccer team–you know, other people
According to Leslie Brunetta, she now has much more hair than she had last July.
We became aware of Leslie Brunetta because of her book, Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating, co-authored with Catherine L. Craig. Thanks to a piece Leslie wrote for the Concord Monitor (and excerpted here), we also learned that she is a breast cancer survivor. Leslie agreed to an interview about her experience, and in her emailed responses, she candidly talks about her diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up for her cancers, plural: She was diagnosed simultaneously with two types of breast cancer.
DXS: In your Concord Monitor piece, you describe the link between an understanding of the way evolution happens and some of the advances in modern medicine. What led you to grasp the link between the two?
LB: I think, because I’m not a scientist (I’m an English major), a lot of things that scientists think are obvious strike me as revelations. I somehow had never realized that the search for what would turn out to be DNA began with trying to explain how, in line with the theory of evolution by natural selection, variation arises and traits are passed from generation to generation. As I was figuring out what each chapter in Spider Silk would be about, I tried to think about the questions non-biologists like me would still have about evolution when they got to that point in the book. By the time we got past dragline silk, I realized that we had so far fleshed out the ways that silk proteins could and have evolved at the genetic level. But that explanation probably wouldn’t answer readers’ questions about how, for example, abdominal spinnerets—which are unique to spiders—might have evolved: the evolution of silk is easier to untangle than the evolution of body parts, which is why we focused on it in the first place.
I decided I wanted to write a chapter on “evo-devo,” evolutionary developmental biology, partly because there was a cool genetic study on the development of spinnerets that showed they’ve evolved from limbs. Fortunately, my co-author, Cay Craig, and editor at Yale, Jean Thomson Black, okayed the idea, because that chapter wasn’t in the original proposal. Writing that chapter, I learned why it took so long—nearly a century—to get from Darwin and Mendel to Watson and Crick and then so long again to get to where we are today. If we non-scientists understand something scientific, it’s often how it works, not how a whole string of people over the course of decades building on each other’s work discovered how it works. I knew evolution was the accumulation of gene changes, but, until I wrote that chapter, it hadn’t occurred to me that people began to look for genes because they wanted to understand evolution.
So that was all in the spider part of my life. Then, a few months into the cancer part of my life, I was offered a test called Oncotype DX, which would look at genetic markers in my tumor cells to develop a risk profile that could help me decide whether I should have chemotherapy plus tamoxifen or just tamoxifen. The results turned out to be moot in my case because I had a number of positive lymph nodes, although it was reassuring to find out that the cancer was considered low risk for recurrence. But still—the idea that a genetic test could let some women avoid chemo without taking on extra risk, that’s huge. No one would want to go through chemo if it wasn’t necessary. So by then I was thinking, “Thank you, Darwin!”
And then, coincidentally, the presidential primary season was heating up, and there were a number of serious candidates (well, serious in the sense that they had enough backing to get into the debates) who proudly declared that they had no time for the theory of evolution. And year after year these stupid anti-evolution bills are introduced in various state legislatures. While I was lying on the couch hanging out in the days after chemo sessions, I started thinking, “So, given that you don’t give any credence to Darwin and his ideas, would you refuse on principle to take the Oncotype test or gene-based therapies like Gleevec or Herceptin if you had cancer or if someone in your family had cancer? Somehow I don’t think so.” That argument is not going to convince hard-core denialists (nothing will), but maybe the cognitive dissonance in connection with something as concrete as cancer will make some people who waver want to find out more.
DXS: You mention having been diagnosed with two different forms of cancer, one in each breast. Can you say what each kind was and, if possible, how they differed?
LB: Yes, I unfortunately turned out to be an “interesting” case. This is one arena where, if you possibly can, you want to avoid being interesting. At first it seemed that I had a tiny lesion that was an invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) and that I would “just” need a lumpectomy and radiation. Luckily for me, the doctor reading my mammogram is known as an eagle eye, and she saw a few things that—given the positive finding from the biopsy—concerned her. She recommended an MRI. In fact, even though I switched to another hospital for my surgery, she sent emails there saying I should have an MRI. That turned up “concerning” spots in both breasts, which led to more biopsies, which revealed multiple tiny cancerous lesions. The only reasonable option was then a double mastectomy.
The lesions in the right breast were IDCs. About 70% of breast cancers are diagnosed as IDCs. Those cancers start with the cells lining the milk ducts. The ones in the left breast were invasive lobular carcinomas (ILCs), which start in the lobules at the end of the milk ducts. Only about 10% of breast cancers are ILCs.
Oncologists hate lobular cancer. Unlike ductal cancers, which form as clumps of cells, lobular cancers form as single-file ribbons of cells. The tissue around ductal cancer cells reacts to those cells, which is why someone may feel a lump—she’s (or he’s) not feeling the cancer itself but the inflammation of the tissue around it. And because the cells clump, they show up more readily on mammograms. Not so lobular cancers. They mostly don’t give rise to lumps and they’re hard to spot on mammograms. They snake their way through tissue for quite a while without bothering anything.
In my case, this explains why last spring felt like an unremitting downhill slide. Every time someone looked deeper, they found something worse. It turned out that on my left side, the lobular side, I had multiple positive lymph nodes, which was why I needed not just chemo but also radiation (which usually isn’t given after a mastectomy). That was the side that didn’t even show up much on the mammogram. On the right side, the ductal side, which provoked the initial suspicions, my nodes were clear. I want to write about this soon, because I want to find out more about it. I’ve only recently gotten to the place emotionally where I think I can deal with reading the research papers as opposed to more general information. By the way, the resource that most helped us better understand what my doctors were talking about was Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. It was invaluable as we made our way through this process, although it turned out that I had very few decisions to make because there was usually only one good option.
DXS: As part of your treatment, you had a double mastectomy. One of our goals with this interview is to tell women what some of these experiences with treatment are like. If you’re comfortable doing so, could you tell us a little bit about what a double mastectomy entails and what you do after one in practical terms?
LB: A mastectomy is a strange operation. In a way, it’s more of an emotional and psychological experience than a physical experience. My surgeon, who was fantastic, is a man, and when we discussed the need for the mastectomies he said that I would be surprised at how little pain would be involved and how quick the healing would be. Even though I trusted him a lot by then, my reaction was pretty much, “Like you would know, right?” But he did know. When you think about it, it’s fairly non-invasive surgery. Unless the cancer has spread to the surrounding area, which doesn’t happen very often now due to early detection, no muscle or bone is removed. (Until relatively recently, surgeons removed the major muscle in the chest wall, and sometimes even bone, because they believed it would cut the risk of recurrence. That meant that many women lost function in their arm and also experienced back problems.) None of your organs are touched. They don’t go into your abdominal cavity. Also, until recently, they removed a whole clump of underarm lymph nodes when they did lumpectomies or mastectomies. Now they usually remove just a “sentinel node,” because they know that it will give them a fairly reliable indicator of whether the cancer has spread to the other nodes. That also makes the surgery less traumatic than it used to be.
I opted not to have reconstruction. Reconstruction is a good choice for many women, but I didn’t see many benefits for me and I didn’t like the idea of a more complicated surgery. My surgery was only about two hours. I don’t remember any pain at all afterwards, and my husband says I never complained of any. I was in the hospital for just one night. By the next day, I was on ibuprofen only. The bandages came off two days after the surgery.
That’s shocking, to see your breasts gone and replaced by thin red lines, no matter how well you’ve prepared yourself. It made the cancer seem much more real in some way than it had seemed before. In comparison, the physical recovery from the surgery was fairly minor because I had no infections or complications. There were drains in place for about 10 days to collect serum, which would otherwise collect under the skin, and my husband dealt with emptying them twice a day and measuring the amount. I had to sleep on my back, propped up, because of where the drains were placed, high up on my sides, and I never really got used to that. It was a real relief to have the drains removed.
My surgeon told me to start doing stretching exercises with my arms right away, and that’s really important. I got my full range of motion back within a couple of months. But even though I had my surgery last March, I’ve noticed lately that if I don’t stretch fully, like in yoga, things tighten up. That may be because of the radiation, though, because it’s only on my left side. Things are never quite the same as they were before the surgery, though. Because I did have to have the axillary nodes out on my left side, my lymph system is disrupted. I haven’t had any real problems with lymphedema yet, and I may never, but in the early months I noticed that my hands would swell if I’d been walking around a lot, and I’d have to elevate them to get them to drain back. That rarely happens now. But I’ve been told I need to wear a compression sleeve if I fly because the change in air pressure can cause lymph to collect. Also, I’m supposed to protect my hands and arms from cuts as much as possible. It seems to me that small nicks on my fingers take longer to heal than they used to. So even though most of the time it seems like it’s all over, I guess in those purely mechanical ways it’s never over. It’s not just that you no longer have breasts, it’s also that nerves and lymph channels and bits of tissue are also missing or moved around.
The bigger question is how one deals with now lacking breasts. I’ve decided not to wear prostheses. I can get away with it because I was small breasted, I dress in relatively loose clothes anyway, and I’ve gained confidence over time that no one notices or cares and I care less now if they do notice. But getting that self-confidence took quite a while. Obviously, it has an effect on my sex life, but we have a strong bond and it’s just become a piece of that bond. The biggest thing is that it’s always a bit of a shock when I catch sight of myself naked in a mirror because it’s a reminder that I’ve had cancer and there’s no getting around the fact that that sucks.
DXS: My mother-in-law completed radiation and chemo for breast cancer last year, and if I remember correctly, she had to go frequently for a period of weeks for radiation. Was that you experience? Can you describe for our readers what the time investment was like and what the process was like?
LB: I went for radiation 5 days a week for about 7 weeks. Three days a week, I’d usually be in and out of the hospital within 45 minutes. One day a week, I met with the radiology oncologist and a nurse to debrief, which was also a form of emotional therapy for me. And one day a week, they laid on a chair massage, and the nurse/massage therapist who gave the massage was great to talk to, so that was more therapy. Radiation was easy compared to chemo. Some people experience skin burning and fatigue, but I was lucky that I didn’t experience either. Because I’m a freelancer, the time investment wasn’t a burden for me. I’m also lucky living where I live, because I could walk to the hospital. It was a pleasant 3-mile round-trip walk, and I think the walking helped me a lot physically and mentally.
DXS: And now to the chemo. My interest in interviewing you about your experience began with a reference you made on Twitter to “chemo brain,” and of course, after reading your evolution-medical advances piece. Can you tell us a little about what the process of receiving chemotherapy is like? How long does it take? How frequently (I know this varies, but your experience)?
LB: Because of my age (I was considered young, which was always nice to hear) and state of general good health, my oncologist put me on a dose-dense AC-T schedule. This meant going for treatment every two weeks over the course of 16 weeks—8 treatment sessions. At the first 4 sessions, I was given Adriamycin and Cytoxan(AC), and the last 4 sessions I was given Taxol (T). The idea behind giving multiple drugs and giving them frequently is that they all attack cancer cells in different ways and—it goes back to evolution—by attacking them frequently and hard on different fronts, you’re trying to avoid selecting for a population that’s resistant to one or more of the drugs. They can give the drugs every two weeks to a lot of patients now because they’ve got drugs to boost the production of white blood cells, which the cancer drugs suppress. After most chemo sessions, I went back the next day for a shot of one of these drugs, Neulasta.
The chemo clinic was, bizarrely, a very relaxing place. The nurses who work there were fantastic, and the nurse assigned to me, Kathy, was always interesting to talk with. She had a great sense of humor, and she was also interested in the science behind everything we were doing, so if I ever had questions she didn’t have ready answers for, she’d find out for me. A lot of patients were there at the same time, but we each had a private space. You’d sit in a big reclining chair. They had TVs and DVDs, but I usually used it as an opportunity to read. My husband sat through the first session with me, and a close friend who had chemo for breast cancer 15 years ago sat through a few other sessions, but once I got used to it, I was comfortable being there alone. Because of the nurses, it never felt lonely.
I’d arrive and settle in. Kathy would take blood for testing red and white blood counts and, I think, liver function and some other things, and she’d insert a needle and start a saline drip while we waited for the results. I’ve always had large veins, so I opted to have the drugs administered through my arm rather than having a port implanted in my chest. Over the course of three to four hours, she’d change the IV bags. Some of the bags were drugs to protect against nausea, so I’d start to feel kind of fuzzy—I don’t think I retained a whole lot of what I read there! The Adriamycin was bright orange; they call it the Red Devil, because it can chew up your veins—sometimes it felt like it was burning but Kathy could stop that by slowing the drip. Otherwise, it was fairly uneventful. I’d have snacks and usually ate lunch while still hooked up.
I was lucky I never had any reactions to any of the drugs, so actually getting the chemo was a surprisingly pleasant experience just because of the atmosphere. On the one hand, you’re aware of all these people around you struggling with cancer and you know things aren’t going well for some of them, so it’s heartbreaking, and also makes you consider, sometimes fearfully, your own future no matter how well you’re trying to brace yourself up. But at the same time, the people working there are so positive, but not in a Pollyannaish-false way, that they helped me as I tried to stay positive. The social worker stopped in with each patient every session, and she was fantastic—I could talk out any problems or fears I had with her, and that helped a huge amount.
DXS: Would you be able to run us through a timeline of the physical effects of chemotherapy after an infusion? How long does it take before it hits hardest? My mother-in-law told me that her biggest craving, when she could eat, was for carb-heavy foods like mashed potatoes and for soups, like vegetable soup. What was your experience with that?
LB: My biggest fear when I first learned I would need chemo was nausea. My oncologist told us that they had nausea so well controlled that over the past few years, she had only had one or two patients who had experienced it. As with the surgeon’s prediction about mastectomy pain, this turned out to be true: I never had even a single moment of nausea.
But there were all sorts of other effects. For the first few days after a session, the most salient effects were actually from the mix of drugs I took to stave off nausea. I generally felt pretty fuzzy, but not necessarily sleepy—part of the mix was steroids, so you’re a little hyped. There’s no way I’d feel safe driving on those days, for example. I’d sleep well the first three nights because I took Ativan, which has an anti-nausea effect. But except for those days, my sleep was really disrupted. Partly that’s because, I’m guessing, the chemo hits certain cells in your brain and partly it’s because you get thrown into chemical menopause, so there were a lot of night hot flashes. Even though I’d already started into menopause, this chemo menopause was a lot more intense and included all the symptoms regularly associated with menopause.
By the end of the first session, I was feeling pretty joyful because it was much less bad than I had thought it would be. By the second week in the two-week cycle, I felt relatively normal. But even though it never got awful, the effects started to accumulate. My hair started to fall out the morning I was going to an award ceremony for Spider Silk. It was ok at the ceremony, but we shaved it off that night. I decided not to wear a wig. First, it was the summer, and it would have been hot. Second, I usually have close to a buzz cut, and I can’t imagine anyone would make a wig that would look anything like my hair. My kids’ attitude was that everyone would know something was wrong anyway, so I should just be bald, and that helped a lot. But it’s hard to see in people’s eyes multiple times a day their realization that you’re in a pretty bad place. Also, it’s not just your head hair that goes. So do your eyebrows, your eyelashes, your pubic hair, and most of the tiny hairs all over your skin. And as your skin cells are affected by the chemo (the chemo hits all fast-reproducing cells), your skin itself gets more sensitive and then is not protected by those tiny hairs. I remember a lot of itching. And strange things like my head sticking to my yoga mat and my reading glasses sticking to the side of my head instead of sliding over my ears.
I never lost my appetite, but I did have food cravings during the AC cycles. I wanted sushi and seaweed salad, of all things. And steak. My sense of taste went dull, so I also wanted things that tasted strong and had crunch. I stopped drinking coffee and alcohol, partly because of the sleep issues but partly because it didn’t taste very good anyway. I drank loads of water on the advice of the oncologist, the nurses, and my acupuncturist, and I think that helped a lot.
During the second cycle, I developed a fever. That was scary. I was warned that if I ever developed a fever, I should call the oncologist immediately, no matter the time of day or day of week. The problem is that your immune response is knocked down by the chemo, so what would normally be a small bacterial infection has the potential to rage out of control. I was lucky. We figured out that the source of infection was a hemorrhoid—the Adriamycin was beginning to chew into my digestive tract, a well-known side effect. (Having to pay constant attention to yet another usually private part of the body just seemed totally unfair by this point.) Oral antibiotics took care of it, which was great because I avoided having to go into the hospital and all the risks entailed with getting heavy-duty IV antibiotic treatment. And we were also able to keep on schedule with the chemo regimen, which is what you hope for.
After that, I became even more careful about avoiding infection, so I avoided public places even more than I had been. I’m very close to a couple of toddlers, and I couldn’t see them for weeks because they were in one of those toddler constant-viral stages, and I really missed them.
The Taxol seems to be much less harsh than the AC regimen, so a lot of these side effects started to ease off a bit by the second 8 weeks, which was certainly a relief.
I was lucky that I didn’t really have mouth sores or some of the other side effects. Some of this is, I think, just because besides the cancer I don’t have any other health issues. Some of it is because my husband took over everything and I don’t have a regular job, so I had the luxury of concentrating on doing what my body needed. I tried to walk every day, and I slept when I needed to, ate when and what I needed to, and went to yoga class when my immune system was ok. I also went to acupuncture every week. I know the science is iffy on that, but I think it helped me with the side effects, even if it was the placebo effect at work (I’m a big fan of the placebo effect). We also both had extraordinary emotional support from many friends and knew we could call lots of people if we needed anything. That’s huge when you’re in this kind of situation.
Currently, I’m still dealing with some minor joint pains, mostly in my wrists and feet. I wasn’t expecting this problem, but my oncologist says it’s not uncommon: they think it’s because your immune system has to re-find its proper level of function, and it can go into overdrive and set up inflammation in the joints. That’s gradually easing off, though.
Most people don’t have it as easy as I did in terms of the medical, financial, and emotional resources I had to draw on. I’m very mindful of that and very grateful.
DXS: You say that you had “few terrible side effects” and a “very cushy home situation.” I’m sure any woman would like to at least be able to experience the latter while dealing with a full-body chemical attack. What were some factors that made it “cushy” that women might be able to talk to their families or caregivers about replicating for them?
LB: As I’ve said, some of it is just circumstance. For example, my kids were old enough to be pretty self-sufficient and old enough to understand what was going on, which meant both that they needed very little from me in terms of care and also that they were less scared than they might have been if they were younger. My husband happens to be both very competent (more competent than I am) around the house and very giving. I live in Cambridge, MA, where I could actually make choices about where I wanted to be treated at each phase and know I’d get excellent, humane care and where none of the facilities I went to was more than about 20 minutes away.
Some things that women might have some control over and that their families might help nudge them toward:
Find doctors you trust. Ask a lot of questions and make sure you understand the answers. But don’t get hung up on survival or recurrence statistics. There’s no way to know for sure what your individual outcome will be. Go for the treatment that you and your doctors believe will give you the best chance, and then assume as much as possible that your outcome will be good.
Make sure you talk regularly with a social worker or other therapist who specializes in dealing with breast cancer patients. If you have fears or worries that you don’t want to talk to your partner or family about, here’s where you’ll get lots of help.
Find compatible friends who have also had cancer to talk to. I had friends who showed me their mastectomy scars, who showed me their reconstructions, who told me about their experiences with chemo and radiation, who told me about what life after treatment was like (is still like decades later…). And none of them told me, “You should…” They all just told me what was hard for them and what worked for them and let me figure out what worked for me. Brilliant.
Try to get some exercise even if you don’t feel like it. It was often when I felt least like moving around that a short walk made me feel remarkably better. But I would forget that, so my husband would remind me. Ask someone to walk with you if you’re feeling weak. Getting your circulation going seems to help the body process the chemo drugs and the waste products they create. For the same reason, drink lots of water.
Watch funny movies together. Laughter makes a huge difference.
Pamper yourself as much as possible. Let people take care of you and help as much as they’re willing. But don’t be afraid to say no to anything that you don’t want or that’s too much.
Family members and caregivers should also take care of themselves by making some time for themselves and talking to social workers or therapists if they feel the need. It’s a big, awful string of events for everyone involved, not just the patient.
DXS: In the midst of all of this, you seem to have written a fascinating book about spiders and their webs. Were you able to work while undergoing your treatments? Were there times that were better than others for attending to work? Could work be a sort of occupational therapy, when it was possible for you to do it, to keep you engaged?
LB: The book had been published about 6 months before my diagnosis. The whole cancer thing really interfered not with the writing, but with my efforts to publicize it. I had started to build toward a series of readings and had to abandon that effort. I had also started a proposal for a new book and had to put that aside. I had one radio interview in the middle of chemo, which was kind of daunting but I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and when I listen to it now, I can hear my voice sounds kind of shaky. It went well, but I was exhausted afterwards. Also invigorated, though—it made me feel like I hadn’t disappeared into the cancer. I had two streams of writing going on, both of which were therapeutic. I sent email updates about the cancer treatment to a group of friends—that was definitely psychological therapy. I also tried to keep the Spider Silk blog up to date by summarizing related research papers and other spider silk news—that was intellectual therapy. I just worked on them when I felt I wanted to. The second week of every cycle my head was usually reasonably clear.
I don’t really know whether I have chemo brain. I notice a lot of names-and-other-proper-nouns drop. But whether that’s from the chemo per se, or from the hormone changes associated with the chemically induced menopause, or just from emotional overload and intellectual distraction, I don’t know. I find that I’m thinking more clearly week by week.
DXS: What is the plan for your continued follow-up? How long will it last, what is the frequency of visits, sorts of tests, etc.?
LB: I’m on tamoxifen and I’ll be on that for probably two years and then either stay on that or go onto an aromatase inhibitor [Ed. note: these drugs block production of estrogen and are used for estrogen-sensitive cancers.] for another three years. I’ll see one of the cancer doctors every three months for at least a year, I think. They’ll ask me questions and do a physical exam and take blood samples to test for tumor markers. At some point the visits go to every six months.
For self-care, I’m exercising more, trying to lose some weight, and eating even better than I was before.
DXS: Last…if you’re comfortable detailing it…what led to your diagnosis in the first place?
LB: My breast cancer was uncovered by my annual mammogram. I’ve worried about cancer, as I suppose most people do. But I never really worried about breast cancer. My mother has 10 sisters and neither she nor any of them ever had breast cancer. I have about 20 older female cousins—I was 50 when I was diagnosed last year–and as far as I know none of them have had breast cancer. I took birth control pills for less than a year decades ago. Never smoked. Light drinker. Not overweight. Light exerciser. I breastfed both kids, although not for a full year. Never took replacement hormones. Never worked in a dangerous environment. Never had suspicious mammograms before. So on paper, I was at very low risk as far as I can figure out. After I finished intensive treatment, I was tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2 (because mutations there are associated with cancer in both breasts) and no mutations were found. Unless or until some new genetic markers are found and one of them applies to me, I think we’ll never know why I got breast cancer, other than the fact that I’ve lived long enough to get cancer. There was no lump. Even between the suspicious mammogram and ultrasound and the biopsy, none of the doctors examining me could feel a lump or anything irregular. It was a year ago this week that I got the news that the first biopsy was positive. In some ways, because I feel really good now, it’s hard to believe that this year ever happened. But in other ways, the shock of it is still with me and with the whole family. Things are good for now, though, and although I feel very unlucky that this happened in the first place, I feel extremely lucky with the medical care I received and the support I got from family and friends and especially my husband.
Leslie Brunetta’s articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times,Technology Review, and the Sewanee Review as well as on NPR and elsewhere. She is co-author, with Catherine L. Craig, of Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating (Yale University Press).