If you get struck by lightning right now and wonder how long will it take for you to embrace the grim reaper? Well, it might take a while as you won’t quite die suddenly, but slowly. At least, when it comes to your whole body.
Scientists at Stanford University observed a programmed death of egg cells of African frogs and discovered that they die at a pace of about 33 microns per minute (or 2 millimetres per hour). They observed that cells don’t quite die suddenly, but in “trigger waves”.
Dr James Ferrell, professor of chemical and systems biology at Stanford, said in a statement,
“It spreads in this fashion and never slows down, never peters out…This work is another example of how nature makes use of these trigger waves – things that most biologists have never heard of – over and over again.”
What scientists basically did was they extracted cell protein from frog eggs, which appear as green blobs, and placed it inside test tubes. They then threw fluorescent light on the matter and the whole thing started turning dark. As the matter didn’t change colour instantaneously, they timed the spread of death and arrived at the magic number of 2mm/hour.
As an example, a neuron (brain cell) which is around 100 microns in length takes over 3 minutes to die.
Such programmed cell death, also known as apoptosis, is necessary for clearing our bodies of unnecessary or harmful cells, such as those that are infected by viruses.
But this wasn’t just a fun-to-do mad science. It has the potential to have wider consequences such as prevention of diseases, or even prevention of death. Dr Ferrell added,
“Sometimes our cells die when we really don’t want them to — say, in neurodegenerative diseases. And sometimes our cells don’t die when we really do want them to — say, in cancer. And if we want to intervene, we need to understand how apoptosis is regulated.”
So the fountain of youth has always really been inside us. We just need to control it.