Now is the winter of our discontent

One of the problems with being over 80 is that you watch your friends get sick.  In the past month, one classmate developed ALS and another has cardiac amyloidosis complete with implantable defibrillator.  The 40 year old daughter of a friend who we watched since infancy has serious breast cancer and is undergoing surgery radiation and chemo.  While I don’t have survivor’s guilt (yet), it isn’t fun.

Reading and thinking about molecular biology has been a form of psychotherapy for me (for why, see the reprint of an old post on this point at the end).

Consider ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig disease).  What needs explaining is not why my classmate got it, but why we all don’t have it.  As you know human neurons don’t replace themselves (forget the work in animals — it doesn’t apply to us).  Just think what the neurons  which die in ALS have to do.  They have to send a single axon several feet (not nanoMeters, microMeters, milliMeters — but the better part of a meter) from their cell bodies in the spinal cord to the muscle the innervate (which could be in your foot).

Supplying the end of the axon with proteins and other molecules by simple diffusion would never work.  So molecular highways (called microtubules) inside the axon are constructed, along which trucks (molecular motors such as kinesin and dynein) drag cargos of proteins, and mRNAs to make more proteins.

We know a lot about microtubules, and Cell vol. 179 pp. 909 – 922 ’19 gives incredible detail about them (even better with lots of great pictures).  Start with the basic building block — the tubulin heterodimer — about 40 Angstroms wide and 80 Angstroms high.  The repeating unit of the microtubule is 960 Angstroms long, so 12 heterodimers are lined up end to end in each repeating unit — this is the protofilament of the microtubule, and our microtubules have 13 of them, so that’s 156 heterodimers per microtubule repeat length which is 960 Angstroms or 96 nanoMeters (96 billionths of a meter).  So a microtubule (or a bunch of microtubules extending a meter has 10^7 such repeats or about 1 billion heterodimers.  But the axon of a motor neuron has a bunch of microtubules in it (between 10 and 100), so the motor neuron firing to  the muscle moving my finger has probably made billions and billions of heterodimers.  Moreover it’s been doing this for 80 plus years.

This is why, what needs explaining is not ALS, but why we don’t all have it.

Here’s the old post

The Solace of Molecular Biology

Neurology is fascinating because it deals with illnesses affecting what makes us human. Unfortunately for nearly all of my medical career in neurology ’62 – ’00 neurologic therapy was lousy and death was no stranger. In a coverage group with 4 other neurologists taking weekend call (we covered our own practices during the week) about 1/4 of the patients seen on call weekend #1 had died by on call weekend #2 five weeks later.

Most of the deaths were in the elderly with strokes, tumors, cancer etc, but not all. I also ran a muscular dystrophy clinic and one of the hardest cases I saw was an infant with Werdnig Hoffman disease — similar to what Steven Hawking has, but much, much faster — she died at 1 year. Initially, I found the suffering of such patients and their families impossible to accept or understand, particularly when they affected the young, or even young adults in the graduate student age.

As noted earlier, I started med school in ’62, a time when the genetic code was first being cracked, and with the background then that many of you have presently understanding molecular biology as it was being unravelled wasn’t difficult. Usually when you know something you tend to regard it as simple or unimpressive. Not so the cell and life. The more you know, the more impressive it becomes.

Think of the 3.2 gigaBases of DNA in each cell. At 3 or so Angstroms aromatic ring thickness — this comes out to a meter or so stretched out — but it isn’t, rather compressed so it fits into a nucleus 5 – 10 millionths of a meter in diameter. Then since DNA is a helix with one complete turn every 10 bases, the genome in each cell contains 320,000,000 twists which must be unwound to copy it into RNA. The machinery which copies it into messenger RNA (RNA polymerase II) is huge — but the fun doesn’t stop there — in the eukaryotic cell to turn on a gene at the right time something called the mediator complex must bind to another site in the DNA and the RNA polymerase — the whole mess contains over 100 proteins and has a molecular mass of over 2 megaDaltons (with our friend carbon containing only 12 Daltons). This monster must somehow find and unwind just the right stretch of DNA in the extremely cramped confines of the nucleus. That’s just transcription of DNA into RNA. Translation of the messenger RNA (mRNA) into protein involves another monster — the ribosome. Most of our mRNA must be processed lopping out irrelevant pieces before it gets out to the cytoplasm — this calls for the spliceosome — a complex of over 100 proteins plus some RNAs — a completely different molecular machine with a mass in the megaDaltons. There’s tons more that we know now, equally complex.

So what.

Gradually I came to realize that what needs explaining is not the poor child dying of Werdnig Hoffman disease but that we exist at all and for fairly prolonged periods of time and in relatively good shape (like my father who was actively engaged in the law and a mortgage operation until 6 months before his death at age100). Such is the solace of molecular biology. It ain’t much, but it’s all I’ve got (the religious have a lot more). You guys have the chemical background and the intellectual horsepower to understand molecular biology — and even perhaps to extend it.

 

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Comments

  • John Wayne  On December 12, 2019 at 5:05 pm

    Once you start to get a feel for just how complicated biology is, it is amazing that it works as well as it does.

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