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RECENT POSTS IN THIS TOPIC

Georgina Woodward: on 8/7/14 at 3:22am UTC, wrote That is really sad. It was an error of judgement and not worth a human...

William Orem: on 8/6/14 at 14:44pm UTC, wrote A sad end.

Thomas Ray: on 4/18/14 at 1:34am UTC, wrote I retire in a couple of weeks. What could be better? :-)

William Orem: on 4/18/14 at 1:17am UTC, wrote Thanks, Tom. Good to hear from you, and I hope all is well in your world.

Thomas Ray: on 4/10/14 at 14:16pm UTC, wrote William, you know I've always admired the way you turn a phrase: "Life...

William Orem: on 4/4/14 at 0:02am UTC, wrote Fraud.

Domenico Oricchio: on 3/24/14 at 11:19am UTC, wrote I am thinking that the protein messages in the cells is satured if the...

Roger Granet: on 3/24/14 at 2:47am UTC, wrote This will be an unpopular comment, I'm sure, but here goes. I'm having a...


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FQXi BLOGS
May 27, 2019

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TOPIC: FQXb (bio) [refresh]
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Blogger William Orem wrote on Mar. 23, 2014 @ 21:39 GMT


Everyone is talking this week about the dramatic confirmation of inflationary theory: those first-instant gravitational waves whose details may even point--being, if you will, quantum phenomena that went suddenly ultra-macroscopic--toward the correct way to unify QM and GR.

I myself have been musing on rather astonishing work in another field. Will you pardon the intrusion if we talk a little bit about biology?

Recently the big news there was released: an unprepossessing experiment involving a weak acid bath showed it's possible to revert mature, differentiated cells to a stem cell state, allowing for the prospect of wholesale repurposing. The surprise wasn't that reversion (or conversion from one mature type into another) can be done--genetics work in that direction took home a Nobel in 2012--but that it can be done so simply. Since FQXers are a physics crowd, you might say it's a bit like someone offhandedly noticing you can trigger a controlled fusion reaction by rewiring a microwave oven.

This is the angle most science journalists gave the discovery last month: "Outsider runs outrageous experiment, stumbles upon success." Charles Vacanti's brilliance, we were told--"outsider" because he's an anesthesiologist, without even a Ph.D.--came in trying something that anyone could have done, but nobody thought to, because it was just too unlikely. There can be a virtue to not being too educated in a certain field; to get all Zen about it, "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the adult's mind, there are few."



Alas--you knew this part was coming--it is now looking like the champagne may have been premature. There are certain "improprieties in the data," as it has been politely phrased in the weeks since. (Or, as a friend of mine--himself a Harvard neuroscientist--more trenchantly put it: "A weak acid bath? Give me a break.") One of the photographs in the article has already been confirmed to be a goof. No one is averring foul play, but whether we have a home-run or a whiff is in serious question.

Either way, though, I'm left musing.

Were I to win the Lottery tomorrow, I would immediately do two things: fund FQXi indefinitely and expand it into other fields. Imagine an FQXpb (psychobiology) or an FQXg (genetics). After all, it is not only cosmology and high energy physics that carry foundational questions. Who was it that floated the idea--wacky, but rather wonderful to contemplate--that if "junk DNA" really has no purpose, at some point we might want to mine it for communication, perhaps put there by the species that fabricated us? (In his novel Contact, Carl Sagan came up with lovely notion that pi, when you advance to the point of being able to decipher its pattern, turns out to be an instruction manual on how to operate reality from the beings who engineered this region of spacetime.)

So, in the spirit of FQX bio, let's just assume for the moment that Vacanti et. al. paper is correct. What follows? Therapies for spinal cord injury and damaged heart tissue, by all means; bring them on. But what really would be interesting would be the fact of simple cellular reversibility. This phenomenon would be telling us something completely surprising about what cells are, at a deep level--and what, by extension, we ourselves are.

As a finding, it's counterintuitive. Why should cells, already long since differentiated, be capable at all of reverting to a stem state, as if awaiting reassignment? (As Rabi said of the muon, who ordered that?)

Is this a natural propensity of all cellular life? Is mutability far more common than has been understood? Does cell reversion happen all the time in the body, and we just never noticed it? (Don't scoff; we should remember it was the 16th century before medical science understood the circulation of the blood.) Could this be a key to understanding what cancers are, at a deep level?

From Carolyn Y. Johnson's Boston Globe article of Feb. 17:

"Even normal cells appear to contain a capacity for regeneration far more powerful than anyone knew. This new idea is opening up profound, almost philosophical questions about why cells would have this capacity. [ . . . ]

'It's slowly changed how we think about life, and I know that sounds grandiose, but it's not grandiose at all,' said Dr. Richard T. Lee, a stem cell scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital."

Life coming to know itself; not too grandiose at all, I should think.



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Domenico Oricchio wrote on Mar. 23, 2014 @ 22:03 GMT
It is an interesting article, and I missed it.

I am thinking that the research idea is to stress the cell, to induce a repair mechanism that in a multicellular organism must revert some cells in stem cell (to rebuild the different tissues).

If this is true, then each weak stress (electric stress, thermal stress, pressure stress, etc) can induce reversion.

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Domenico Oricchio replied on Mar. 24, 2014 @ 11:19 GMT
I am thinking that the protein messages in the cells is satured if the physical signal is constant, or if it is a stationary sinusoial, or if it is a simple peridodic function, so that the stress can be induced by a pure optimal (intensity and time scale connected to the cellular processes with a genetic algoritm) random physical process, so that the physical signal induce ever a protein message.

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Andrew Mendelsohn wrote on Mar. 23, 2014 @ 22:29 GMT
The reversibility of somatic cell differentiation has been known for quite some time. The idea of "cloning" in which one differentiated somatic cell nucleus, which contains all of an organism's genetic information, can be reprogrammed to form an entire new organism has been known since the 1950s from seminal experiments from Briggs and Gurdon.

We even have precise molecular recipes to alter cell destiny: Induced Pluripotent Stem (IPS) cells can be formed by treating somatic cells from 4 or fewer master "factors" There are numerous experiments showing it is possible to convert one differentiated cell type into another. For example, a skin cell into a heart cell.

The now controversial acid bath derived stem cells were cool because of the apparent ease with which pluripotent stem cells could be made and the low barrier to change. But the IPS cell work shows that the barrier is easily crossed.

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Roger Granet wrote on Mar. 24, 2014 @ 02:47 GMT
This will be an unpopular comment, I'm sure, but here goes. I'm having a hard time imagining expanding FQXi into genetics, biochemistry and mol. and cell biology. Those fields are based mostly on real experiments using positive and negative controls and on the lookout for experimental artifacts. Even the more theoretical articles or modeling articles make predictions that can be mostly tested either immediately or in a few years. Biochemists try to find the chemical, mechanical reasons why things occur rather than just writing equations that predict them. On the other hand, most modern theoretical physics seems to be about mathematical speculations based on a correct, but aging set of facts; assumptions about things no one can see or test (mathematical constructs and physical laws exist in a Platonic realm somewhere); etc. As far as my limited knowledge goes, physicists don't seem to care as much about why things happen as long as they can write equations for them. For instance, they don't seem to have any idea why or care about why oppositely charged particles attract. What's the mechanism? How does exchanging photons lead to attraction in the case of oppositely charged particles and repulsion in the case of particles with the same charge. I admit I'm basing this comment on very limited knowledge of physics, but that's the impression I get from the outside. Thanks for putting up with my ranting.

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Blogger William Orem wrote on Apr. 4, 2014 @ 00:02 GMT
Fraud.

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Thomas Howard Ray wrote on Apr. 10, 2014 @ 14:16 GMT
William, you know I've always admired the way you turn a phrase:

"Life coming to know itself; not too grandiose at all, I should think."

A lot packed into 17 syllables. And a very compact case for extending the mission of foundational research.

Tom

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Blogger William Orem wrote on Apr. 18, 2014 @ 01:17 GMT
Thanks, Tom. Good to hear from you, and I hope all is well in your world.

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Thomas Howard Ray replied on Apr. 18, 2014 @ 01:34 GMT
I retire in a couple of weeks. What could be better? :-)

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Blogger William Orem wrote on Aug. 6, 2014 @ 14:44 GMT
A sad end.

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Georgina Woodward replied on Aug. 7, 2014 @ 03:22 GMT
That is really sad. It was an error of judgement and not worth a human life.

William, I wanted to reply to your why do cells have the ability to regress and form different tissue. The ability to repair the body improves chances of survival, Salamanders and starfish can regrow limbs that are lost by accident or predation and lizards have the ability to regrow their tail. They can sacrifice the tail to escape a predator. More advanced animals have lost the ability to regenerate whole body parts but do still have amazing abilities to self heal. The how of this regeneration ability was being researched 30+ years ago when I was university. How we have progressed

Body parts that can be grown in a laboratory


There is also work being done on 3D printing replacement body parts.Quote"Pioneer researcher Dietmar Hutmacher - who leads the biofabrication research team at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane - predicts the "biofab" technology will be used in Australian hospitals within five years.", Quote"Women with mastectomies have been targeted for the first clinical trials that will use 3D-printed "scaffolds" to regenerate their breasts using fat cells." The Australian May 15 2014. The fat cells that will form the new breast tissue are harvested by liposuction. What a life transforming technology that will be for many women who undergo mastectomy.

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