Springtime, ‘under the influence’ go hand in hand
A chicken is an egg’s way of making more eggs. Similarly, life is DNA’s way of making more DNA.
Bacteria have it easy. They grow and divide – no muss, no fuss. Higher organisms, on the other hand, reproduce via sex.
Sex is expensive. Take the robin, showing off his bright red breast to attract a mate. It takes protein to make those bright red feathers, and energy. It takes yet more energy to chase off his rivals; then he has to get up early each morning to sing. As if that weren’t enough, how long can he wear such colors and sing such songs before he attracts the attention of a hungry fox, or hawk, or house cat?
Given the expense, why bother? Why not go back to the good old days of our single-celled ancestors, who could grow and divide over and over?
In a world that’s constantly changing, a population gets a decided advantage by mixing up its genes, putting them together in new combinations, as happens during sex. But still, given the cost and the danger, why would an individual organism go to the bother?
It turns out that, as in a gangster movie in which a bar patron is “slipped a Mickey” – given a drink laced with “knock-out drops” – nature does much the same to us. At different stages of the reproductive cycle, different chemicals circulate through our bodies. Many of these substances are psychoactive – they affect the way we think and feel.
Oftentimes, the structure of a molecule – the way its atoms are put together – provides a clue as to how the molecule works in our bodies. LSD and mescaline, for instance, are very similar to serotonin, a neurotransmitter – a chemical that carries signals by moving from one brain cell to another.
Given their similarities, it’s not hard to imagine the hallucinogenic drugs becoming involved in signal transmission. But because they are not exactly the right shape, the signals they carry get confused, resulting in hallucinations and other effects for which these drugs are infamous.
The extraordinary efficacy of morphine as a pain killer led scientists to suspect the existence of natural, endogenous (internally produced) pain killers. In the 1970s, they found them – endorphins are the morphine-like chemicals the brain produces to kill pain (and producing, incidentally, “runner’s high”).
More recently, endogenous chemicals similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, have been found in the brain. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the effects of THC intoxication, the natural chemicals seem to be involved in memory.
Panic is an unhealthy response to danger, so it’s not surprising that evolution has created a chemical – phenylethylamine (PEA) – that, at moments of risk, creates in the mind a feeling of well-being, even of pleasure, all the while heightening the senses.
PEA, it turns out, is also produced in the brain when one is “turned on” by the opposite sex. The substance causes that wonderful feeling of being, if not in love, at least infatuated.
But for a tiny cluster of four atoms, a molecule of PEA – which has started so many down the road to romance – is a virtual twin of a more infamous family of molecules: amphetamines, also known as speed.
Trained as a biologist, Alan Stahler is also an amateur astronomer. He teaches biology and geology at Bitney Springs Charter High School. His science programs can be heard at noon on alternate Tuesdays on KVMR-FM (89.5).
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