Monday, May 24, 2010

Mitochondrial Musings

Sometimes in life, one pays too much attention to individual trees, to the detriment of the forest.

Turns out that every cell in our body has a nucleus sitting in a cytoplasm. This cytoplasm, consists of millions of mitochondria, which are like power packs. These mitochondria, are responsible for conducting exemplary energy management in your body, cell by cell, by judicious combustion using oxygen and food.

Now each of these mitochondria knows what to do as per the instructions coded in what is called the Mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA. This is of course, different, from the DNA in the cell nucleus, whereby you get your parental genetic tendencies and traits, when 23 chromosomes from the mother meet up with 23 from the father.

Sometimes, like in life, there are few bad mitochondria; their mtDNA has been messed up. When in any cell, more than 50% of the mitochondria are messed up or mutated, this gives rise to imperfections in the form of mitochondrial diseases in a person; as many as 40. Nerve cells in the brain and muscles require a great deal of energy, and thus appear to be particularly damaged when mitochondrial dysfunction occurs. Nerves, muscles, and the brain are the most affected, and the diseases are sometimes seen in childhood and sometimes later .

Muscle weakness or exercise intolerance, heart failure or rhythm disturbances, dementia, movement disorders, stroke-like episodes, deafness, blindness, droopy eyelids, limited mobility of the eyes, vomiting, and seizures, are some of the outcomes of mitochondrial disease. ( You can get these symptoms even otherwise, but one assumes the response to treatment would depend on whether the cause was mitochondrial, or not.

And while the nuclear DNA has chromosomes from the father and mother, the mitochondrial DNA stuff is inherited only from the mother.

And so scientists have been experimenting trying to figure out if a nucleus can be simply pulled out and made to sit and grow in a disease free perfect mitochondria elsewhere. And since the mitochondria depends 100% on the mother, this means a nucleus with one mother now gets to sit in the perfect mitochondria found from another mother.

British and Japanese scientists report creation of embryos, with two different mothers and a father. The motivation for arriving at this amazing state of affairs is an effort at trying to do away with mitochondrial diseases.

These embryos developed into what maybe called embryos devoid of the inherited genetic disease. No child has been born like this so far, for legal, and ethical reasons, but should it be, then it would have 2 mothers and one father.

I often wonder why someone doesn't do some research to figure out how faulty mitochondria can be repaired. It is unlikely that a 2-mother-1-father child will see the light of the day, due to legal compulsions. It certainly looks like scientists are able to go deeper and deeper into nano-level situations of the human body. Certain cells apparently have some coding in their DNA that says the cells should die systematically on its own, or programmed cell death.

Why can't research be done into finding this code and implanting it into the bad mitochondria cells, so they will spontaneously die, and not contribute towards mitochondrial disease ?

Its a bit like saying, that a child is learning bad habits staying some place, so let's remove the child from there, and take him to another place where the people environment is better. And this can go on ad infinitum, doing nothing to find out why the environment is bad, and what one can do about it. And how the child can grow in strength and confidence, learning to deal with it in a constructive way.

And our society today reflects this approach. Careless neglect creating pockets of disturbance in society. Nobody studies the root cause. Band-aid treatment aided by vote bank politics, to paper over the problems, with show-items like statues, special reservations, grand sounding schemes. Every problem society has several problem creators, and one paternal elected official, to paper over the faults, while filling their own deep pockets.

We in India know how to abuse technology. Ultrasonography , has been used to kill instead of diagnose. Taking the mother and checking her uterine contents for sex determination is now dangerous for the mother. The original societal environment, like the aforementioned mitochondria, continues to be bad, inimical for the mother-to-be, and we do nothing to change it.

Meanwhile neonatal research progresses by leaps and bounds, benefiting only those who were born in good, nurturing societal setups.

I don't see the likely hood of this 2-mother-1-father child ever becoming a reality, and it shouldn't. You cannot pluck things from a continuum, drop it in some other medium, and expect zero remnants of the old continuum to exist, in the new medium. We don't know how the drops of the old cytoplasm and perfect mitochondrial new cytoplasm will mix. And how this will show up in a resultant human , if, and when , it was ever to be allowed.
And so I wonder why research is even funded in this direction.

And as far as the n-mother-m-father child becoming a reality, there are so many children , born of one father and one mother, no one to call their own, looking for families , one father and one mother, to call their own, and tried and tested social systems in place, to make this happen.

Like I said, we pay so much attention to the individual tree, to the detriment of the forest.....


  1. I had to read the post twice to understand the connection. Felt good when I understood it :-)

  2. aativas I too had to do this post twice, to myself understand what I was writing ...:-) ; but I have felt strongly about this, and so had to write ....

  3. Poignant post! Indeed we tread complex routes for certain solutions for the future, while neglecting the simpler, much easier ways that can provide for betterment of the present!!

  4. I'm glad you wrote this , too, and I understand why you felt so strongly about it. I agree completely with you. And you always say everything so well! Hope your week is off to a great start. Is your brother and sister-in-law still coming to the northwest? And are you going to be in the states for your son's graduation?


  5. What lateral thinking ... wow and what connections / So lucidly written and well put.

  6. You are writing about a profound subject with many bi-products. It is a difficult subject. I guess money always goes to the dramatic research.

    You are certainly right that there should be a lot of emphasis on adoption. No living child should be without a loving set of parents and that should take priority.

    I hope I haven't misconstrued what you are saying.

    Suranga, I have posted your beautiful poem on my blog today with a link to your blog. Thank you so much for writing it for me.

  7. Now if only we could get this post to the powers that be!
    Yes, there is so much that we have that is being neglected or abused, and yet we set our sights on abstractions for a presumably better future.

  8. So true Suranga, it's a pet peeve with me. With 3-4 thousand children being adopted in India, and several million without families, one would think it was a priority to set them free for adoption and foster care.

    By the way, have you read Brian Sykes 'Seven Daughters of Eve'? It's a fascinating read about mitochondrial inheritance and how most Europeans can trace their genealogy back to only 7 women, through their mtDNA.

  9. Well connected !

    The essence of our living is to go towards the source ! Sometimes, down the line, the stream is so much of a trickle, because there is a new building thats come up at the source !

    Well, development ! Sigh !

  10. I think you have good knowledge on science.This post tells good information.

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  11. softypinkngloriousred Thank you...

    Sylvia Thank you .. have emailed you..

    nsiyer Thank you. I was so upset about this that I didnt realize I was laterally thinking....

    Darlene Thank you. And yes, its a complicated issue. But then it should make sense to value what we have rather than speculate about vague possibilities...Thank you for posting the poem !

    Dipali I guess that's life !

    Starry No, I havent read the Sykes book. Thank you for introducing it to me. I am looking out for it now !

    KaviPoint well taken. I just hope the construction types dont emulate Mumbai ...