Al Stahler: Electrical fight
I’m walking in a bone-dry streambed in the Mojave, when a chorus of rattles alerts me to the fact that I’m sharing the streambed with half-a-dozen rattlesnakes, dead ahead.
Sitting on the kidneys – just above the butt – adrenals squirt adrenaline into the bloodstream. Heart beats harder … lungs breathe deeper … legs slam into reverse.
Now I’m in a Roadrunner cartoon – I am Wiley Coyote, spinning my wheels backwards. Unable to get a grip in the loose, dry gravel, my feet get me nowhere, until – finally – brain kicks in … feet slow down … and I back away from the rattlers.
Adrenaline is a clump of a couple-dozen atoms … glued-together, not at random, but in a very specific shape – a shape that allows the hormone to fit nicely into jig-saw puzzles sitting on heart, lungs, leg muscles. These jig-saw puzzles are not flat, but three-dimensional – they are sculpted, with curves, dips, and bumps. And all these puzzles are missing just one piece – a piece in the shape of adrenaline.
Adrenaline carries a message: “Get movin’!” But merely fitting into the puzzle does not convey the message. The clump of atoms must announce, “I am here – pay attention!”
That announcement is made with electricity.
When you remove a wool sweater – as you pull the sweater over your head – sparks fly.
While you were wearing the sweater, the wool scraped electrons off atoms in your body. As you pull the sweater off, the atoms in your body feel those lost electrons, feel their electric charge. Your body pulls the electrons – gazillions of them – back through the air, in sparks.
Plunk a slice of bread into the toaster, and rivers of electrons flow out of the wall, to brown your toast.
Whenever we move a muscle, or think a thought, we do it by moving electrons – lots of electrons. But not in a river. When we move electrons in our bodies – no matter how many, overall – we move them one-by-one. Ultra-precise control of electricity makes us different from our appliances. Moving electrons one-by-one makes us alive.
Next time your hair – and the air – are totally dry, rub a plastic pen briskly through your hair, a dozen-or-so times. Plastic – like wool – pulls electrons off you. Now hold the pen a fraction of an inch above your arm. Feeling the electrons on the pen, the hair on your arm rises upward, pulled toward the electrons. Feeling your arm-hair move, you’re feeling electricity.
Just so, atoms in jig-saw puzzles sitting on heart, lungs, legs, feel the electricity of an odd electron here, an odd electron there, within the clump of atoms that make up adrenaline. Just as electrons in the pen pull on the hair on your arms, the electrons in the puzzle atoms pull on those odd electrons in the adrenaline … allowing the puzzle to grasp the adrenaline, to draw it tightly into place in the puzzle.
The electrical pull goes both ways. Even as the puzzle holds tight to adrenaline, odd electrons in the adrenaline pull on atoms in the puzzle, giving those atoms a nudge. When the puzzle feels that tiny adrenaline tweak … the message is delivered.
All through our bodies, precise control of electricity makes us alive.
Unfortunately, this system can be hacked.
Nearly every cell in our body carries within itself an instruction manual: Tens of thousands of genes tell our body’s cells how to live – how to make energy, make repairs, make babies (new cells for the body).
A body cannot exist without genes … but genes can exist without bodies. Rogue genes can float about, in the air, in the water. Outside of a body, these genes are not-doin’-nothin’ … until they are breathed, swallowed, somehow carried into a body. Rogue genes – genes-without-a-body – are viruses.
Viruses are not alive. Outside a body, viruses are dead as doornails.
Once inside a body, viruses do not come alive … but they can reproduce … and they can evolve. Jumping into the bodies of our ancestors, over billions of years, viruses have evolved shapes that fit, more-or-less precisely, into our jig-saw puzzles. And viruses have evolved electrically, to carry messages to our jig-saw puzzles – messages that trick our cells into working for them.
Even before it enters a cell, the COVID-19 virus begins issuing orders – it tricks the cell into taking the virus inside. Once inside, the virus hijacks the cell completely. It tells the cell to ignore parts of the cell’s own instruction manual … tells the cell to follow the instructions in the viral genes … tells the cell to forget about its own well-being, and to spend its energies, instead, making more viruses. As more rogue genes are made, they spread to other cells in the body … then to other bodies.
Fitting well into a cell’s jig-saw puzzle makes a virus infectious; tricking the cell, electrically, to pull it into the puzzle, makes the virus yet more infectious. The better the fit, the better the electricity, the more contagious the virus.
The virus that causes COVID-19 has evolved to fit, and to behave electrically, so as to be especially contagious.
But evolution never stops. A variant form of the virus appeared, recently, in the UK. Biochemist Erik Procko (University of Illinois) confirms that changes in “atomic interactions” – in how the virus puts itself together, giving it its shape, its electrical behavior … have made this variant even more contagious.
And yet more recently, a variant has appeared in South Africa.
Over the billions of years that viruses have attacked our ancestors, our ancestors have evolved defenses – immune systems – to fight back. One part of immunity involves building jig-saw puzzles into which a viral puzzle-piece will fit … allowing the virus to be captured and destroyed. This is a part of our immune system that gives us immunity to the virus, after we’ve been infected.
But the South African variant shapes itself differently … differently enough that it barely fits into the jig-saw puzzle built to give us immunity to the original virus.
The fuel that gives us the energy to fight off a virus comes from our diet … as do the raw materials with which we build the weapons in our immune system … as do the metal atoms – such as iron – that enable us to make precise use of electricity.
As the immune system fights off the virus, the fight comes down – at least in part – to whether the body … or the virus … is better at using electricity.
Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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