Tag Archives: biology

Review 188: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks has probably saved your life. If not yours, then almost certainly that of someone you know.

And you don’t even know who she is.

Or, rather, who she was. The original Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who lived near Baltimore, grew up in poverty, worked hard, and died in 1951, overcome by a cancer that started in her cervix and spread out to take over her whole body. She left behind five children, a husband, and a legacy that would forever change our understanding of biology and medicine.

This picture is required to be inserted into any discussion of Henrietta Lacks, for good reason.

When she first went to Johns Hopkins Medical Center and was diagnosed with cancer, her doctor took a small sample of cells from the tumor and sent it to his colleague, George Gey. Gey had long been in the pursuit of what seemed like an impossible dream: to culture human cells and keep them alive in the lab. By doing so, he hoped to create new ways to test medicine and study human biology without all those pesky patients getting in the way. Unfortunately, his work had thus far been a failure. Human cells, no matter how hard he tried, simply would not survive outside the body for very long. Gey tried all kinds of media and methods, inventing some machines that have become invaluable to cell culture research, but he simply watched culture after culture die in the lab.

All of that changed when he got HeLa.

The cells from Henrietta Lacks, which were known as “HeLa,” not only didn’t die – they thrived. They were so robust that Gey and his staff soon had more HeLa cells than they could keep, much less use, so they started sending them off to any researcher who asked. With HeLa, researchers around the world began to make discoveries that would save lives and change the world.

But with this ever-growing cell line – which was baked, boiled, frozen, irradiated, cloned, cut up, and sent into space – it was very easy to forget that there was once a woman named Henrietta Lacks, with a family and a legacy of her own.

Plenty has been written about HeLa in the last fifty years, and any researcher who works with cells is probably well aware of its existence and importance. But very few people know about Henrietta, and it was this oversight that Rebecca Skloot is trying to correct in this book.

Henrietta finally gets a gravestone

She began her quest with a simple question: “Who was Henrietta Lacks?” The fact that she got the right name was surprising enough, actually. HeLa had previously been identified as Henrietta Lakes, Helen Lane, and Helen Larson in various publications. Skloot believed that there was more to the story than just a bunch of immortal cells, and was determined to find Henrietta’s surviving relatives and learn more about this woman who had somehow become so important to the world.

Skloot wouldn’t be the first, however. A writer for Rolling Stone, a con man, and the BBC had all attempted to look into the life of Henrietta before, and found that the surviving Lackses were not only unaware of what their mother had become, but largely unaware of why it was important.

The children and grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks had grown up in the Baltimore area, mired in the poverty of being black in the end of the twentieth century. Drug abuse, alcoholism, and a lack of education meant that their lives were full of hardship and struggle, and not likely to get any better. When they found out that Henrietta’s cells were not only unique to science but being sold all around the world, this was news that they weren’t all prepared to cope with. Some saw it as a religious visitation, others as a massive conspiracy, and still others as just a way to make money off some poor black folk from the city.

Deborah Lacks

The center of Skloot’s narrative is Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter and the one Lacks who seemed most determined to find out what had happened. Deborah wanted so hard to find out what had happened to her mother that it almost killed her. The stress of not knowing – or, even worse, knowing but not understanding – took a heavy toll on her physical and mental health, and she was reluctant to talk to anyone at all about her mother. But it was Deborah that Rebecca had to convince if she was going to write this book, and in order to do that, she had to promise that the book would be about the woman Henrietta was, not just the cells she was famous for.

That’s probably what makes this book as readable and engaging as it is. While the science is handled well and smoothly, it’s not nearly as fascinating or emotionally gripping as the stories that she tells about the Lacks family. She shows us a family that is held together by the strength of their faith in their God and each other, and who are desperately trying to understand their place in the world and how Henrietta came to be what she was.

HeLa cells, as seen stained under a microscope

When the original cells were taken from Henrietta, it was done without her consent. She also had no say in what happened to those cells and how they were used, nor did any of her family find out the truth until years later. In an era long before the phrase “informed consent” was even coined, the medical establishment made massive scientific and financial gains, and in the meantime the Lacks were mired in poverty. As several of her children note, Henrietta has changed medicine forever, but her children can’t go see a doctor.

The struggle to understand must have been enormous. One of the moments that was most surprising and illuminating to me was when Henrietta’s son Zakariyya asked Rebecca, “What’s a cell?”

Just like Rebecca, I had to take a moment to absorb that question, and it put into sharp perspective the vast assumptions that I had made, coming from a well-educated white background. I thought that everyone at least knew what a cell was, but that assumption couldn’t have been further from the truth. Deborah and her family are people of minimal formal education who are trying to understand a topic that people study for their entire lives. Their dedication to this quest is so strong, and the struggle is so great that their attempt is nothing less than heroic, to my way of seeing things.

The Lacks Family

The story is still unfinished. HeLa is still out there, making news and causing trouble. The Lacks family is still living in poverty, although the new generation has been able to go to school and are aiming at a brighter future for themselves. And while patients’ rights to control what is done with their bodies and their tissues is improving, the law is still on the side of the doctors and hospitals. Medical ethics is a lot better than it was, but the fight is fierce, especially when there’s money involved.

This book is not just the story of cells or of science. It’s the story of a woman and her family, and how sometimes people get lost in the inexorable movement of scientific progress. Some parts are infuriating, some are heartbreaking, but the book is an illumination into what is sometimes sacrificed in pursuit of a better world.

—–
“When I saw those toenails, I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”
– Mary Kubicek, assistant to George Gey

Rebecca Skloot on Wikipedia
Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Wikipedia
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on Amazon.com
The Henrietta Lacks Foundation website
The Lacks Family website
Rebecca Skloot homepage

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under biology, disease, family, nonfiction, quest, Rebecca Skloot, science

Review 176: Adventures Among Ants

Adventures Among Ants by Mark W. Moffett

Moffett knew from a young age that he wanted to be a field biologist – traveling the world in search of the most interesting animals he could find. And ever since his childhood, he’s had an abiding interest in ants.

And who could blame him? There are thousands of species of ants, found all around the world, and once you get down and really look at them, they display some amazing behaviors. They communicate through a series of smells, functioning almost as a group organism to take care of the nest, forage for food, and move from place to place. Some species of ants live their whole lives without touching the ground, while others ravage the ground they walk on, devouring everything in their paths. Ants are nature’s workhorses, utterly communistic in their behavior and presenting a model of order that humans should envy.

WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?!

We follow Moffett as he travels around the world to find the most interesting representatives of ant-dom. In India, he found the marauder ant, a vicious species of ant that goes on raids to find food near its nest. Connected by a complex system of trails, the marauder sends out every able-bodied ant it can muster, from the tiny workers to the (comparatively) giant soldier ants. They find, subdue, and dismember their prey with frightening efficiency, and carry it back to the nest, all without a leader to give them instructions or make sure they’re going the right way. Each ant just knows what her job is, and just does it. In that way, the ant super-organism takes care of itself.

In Africa, he hunts the famous African army ant, a species that is famous for its terrifying raids and voracious appetites. They swarm out around their nest, devouring anything in their path, sometimes raiding other nests for food and larvae. When army ants come, the lucky prey gets out of the way.

Ants are not confined to the ground, of course. The weaver ant is a tree-borne species that has mastered its domain with harshness and efficiency. The Amazon ant kidnaps pupae from neighboring nests and raises the young ants as their slaves. The leafcutter ant invented agriculture fifty million years before humanity even walked the earth, and the Argentine ant lives in supercolonies that cover hundreds of square kilometers and engage in violent, no-quarters war with each other.

Hey. So. How’s that picnic?

The sheer variety of ants on this planet is astounding, and Moffett shows an unstoppable enthusiasm for the little critters. What’s more, he’s an outstanding photographer, who has developed his technique and equipment to be able to get some remarkable shots of these tiny, tiny creatures in action. The hardcover edition that I have is printed on nice, glossy paper, pretty much in order to showcase Moffett’s photographic work, which he has regularly done for National Geographic Magazine.

What’s more, he continually seeks to find connections between ants and humans, who have more similarities than one might expect. We both live in large, complex societies, where individuals take on specific roles that often last that individual’s lifetimes. We engage in wars, slavery, and varied communal activities that benefit both the individual and the society at the same time. Like us, the ants build highways and infrastructure, communicate over distances, tend gardens, hold territory, plan for the future and learn from the past. And they started doing all this thousands of millennia before we even thought about standing upright. We are not the same as ants, of course – ants are unmoved by things such as status, greed, or ambition, but their instinctual dedication to the greater good of their colony is probably something that we could use a good dose of.

For all that, however, I don’t think this was the right ant book for me. Written by a person who truly loves ants, I think that would be the best kind of person to read it. I don’t have a particular fondness for the little buggers, and there were a lot of times where I had to stop and start over, or where I found myself looking for anything else to do rather than continue reading, which is never a good sign. It isn’t Moffett’s fault, I think. He put a lot of work and detail into this book, assuming that the reader would find ants just as fascinating as he does.

I mean I do, I DO! I’m so sorry don’t kill me!! (photo from Myrmecos.net)

And I don’t.

Oh sure – I find them fascinating in abstract, but not quite fascinating enough to get into the down-and-dirty details about how they construct trunk trails out of their nests, or the exact division of labor that exists between one class of ant and another. I’m not sure what I thought the book would be when I saw Moffett on The Colbert Report, but it wasn’t quite enough for me to sit down and devour the way I hoped it would be.

If you like ants – or you know someone who does – this is a great book, and it gives an excellent insight into what it means to be a field biologist (lots of staying in one place, apparently). For anyone who really loves insects in general, and ants in particular, this book will be a welcome addition to their bookshelf.

—————————————

“Is [an ant] intelligent? To my way of thinking, yes. We know a worker can evaluate the living space, ceiling height, entry dimensions, cleanliness, and illumination of a potential new home for her colony – a masterly feat, considering that she’s a roving speck with no pen, paper, or calculator.”
– Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants

Mark Moffett on Wikipedia
Adventures Among Ants on Amazon.com
Adventures Among Ants website

Leave a comment

Filed under animals, ants, biology, Mark Moffett, science

Review 90: The World Without Us


The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Death is a bummer.

I mean, here’s the thing – we all know we’re going to die. It’s part of the human condition, knowing that sooner or later the only existence that we’ve ever known is going to come to an end. And that’ll be it – no more us. It’s a creepy thought, to be honest, which is why most of us do our everlovin’ best to ignore it. We all know that we’re going to die, but we don’t want to know it, so we ignore it. We eat our Super-Double-CheezyFries, go BASE jumping, vote Republican, willfully ignoring the inevitable truth that these things are going to end up killing us.

Even when we are confronted with our mortality, we still find ways to console ourselves. We look around at our families and our friends and say things like, “No one truly dies so long as they’re remembered.” And we accept that even if we aren’t there, other people are. The things we’ve done in our lives, no matter how tiny, will echo around humanity as long as it lasts. If we are truly lucky, we will have contributed greatly to our species as a whole and gained a very special place in history.

But then we remember that even history is impermanent. The average species only gets to live about four million years, and we’ve already eaten up about a quarter of that. What’s more, we seem to be doing our level best to come in below average. Science tells us one inescapable fact: nothing lasts forever. One day, maybe sooner, maybe later, the last of the humans will die. Perhaps we’ll be replaced by another intelligence, one that can continue our work. Or perhaps we’ll just leave everything behind. All that will be left will be artifacts, objects that tell the story of humanity.

And that cheers you up a bit. We’re good at leaving marks, after all. We built a wall that’s so big it’s practically landscape. We split two continents apart in the name of commerce. We have girded our land masses in iron and asphalt, erected great cities of glass, concrete and steel. We have lowered mountains and raised seas, extracted the blood of the earth and bent the rivers to our will. Even if the human race vanished tomorrow, some far-future alien archaeologist would still be able to come here and know that a brilliant and puissant species once walked this world.

Yeah. About that….

This book was inspired by a very simple question: what would happen if all the humans just… disappeared? How it happened doesn’t really matter. Maybe aliens, maybe Jesus, perhaps some strange, species-specific quantum Critical Existence Failure. Whatever the cause, the sun rises in the morning and humans just aren’t there anymore. How would the world handle our disappearance? Would it even notice? What has humanity wrought that would last?

It’s a simple question with an incredibly complex answer. In order to even begin to know what would happen upon our disappearance, we need to know how the world works. We need to look at the forces that drive evolution and species propagation. What is it that allows life to spread and to flourish, to adapt to changing circumstances and make the best of a hard situation? What do we know from our studies of the unimaginably distant past that will help us foretell the future?

In addition, we need to know what effect humans have already had on the world. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the species driven to extinction by carelessness or ignorance – the passenger pigeon, the moa, the dodo – but our effect has been so much greater. Weisman is willing to categorize humanity as a force of nature thanks to the effect that we’ve had. Our relentless conquest of the Earth has, in small ways and large, unavoidably set evolution on a path that would have been very different had we never arisen in the first place. In a way, our influence can never be truly erased, and will likely survive for as long as biology does.

Finally, we need to know about the things we’re leaving behind. What is our world made of, and how well would it survive the rigors of time? The oceans of concrete that we’ve poured will freeze and thaw over and over again, and, aided by the surprising power of flowers and grass, will split, crack and crumble in time. Our massive steel skyscrapers will be undone by water and creeping vegetation. Our stonework will be worn down by wind and water, our satellites will fall, dams will burst and the wilderness will relentlessly take over the sacred places of the world. In the end, the only testament to our existence will be a handful of bronze statues and gold ornaments, and the impassive visages of the faces on Mt. Rushmore.

And even they will one day fall.

If you’re one of those people who worries about the impact that humanity has had on the earth, this will be a heartening book. As the geologic record shows, there’s pretty much nothing the universe can throw at this planet that can kill it. At least not so far. And the impact that humans are having isn’t anywhere near the great extinctions of the past, in which great swaths of death cut through the biosphere in a matter of decades. Understand this: there is nothing that we can do to the earth that the earth cannot undo, given time.

And that is a comforting thought. We do sometimes get wrapped up in our own awesomeness and assume that our actions have infinite consequences when, in fact, they don’t. We beat our breasts about the ozone hole and the Amazon, the Northwest African Cheetah and the Sharp Snouted Day Frog. We read about garbage gyres in the sea, and irradiated wastes on the land and despair over what we have done to this world.

The truth is that the world will move on after humans, and the future will hardly know that we were here.

That’s where the book got depressing for me, though. You see, I can take or leave individuals. I think The People are, in general, dumber than a Texas schoolbook. But all in all, I like Humanity. In the two hundred thousand years or so that Homo sapiens has been wandering this world, we’ve done some really neat things. We’ve built globe-spanning civilizations, produced unparalleled art, music and architecture, and invented worlds of brilliant fiction. We’ve examined the universe at its largest and peered back in time to the moment it began. We have gazed into the heart of the atom to know how reality works at its smallest levels. We’ve danced and sang and lived. And even with the terrible things that we’ve done, both to each other and to our world, I still think we’re a species worth knowing. We’re a species that deserves better than oblivion.

But the universe doesn’t care about what we deserve.

So if you take anything away from the book, let it be this – our existence here as a species is temporary. There’s no reward for our goodness, nor punishment for our sins. But here and now, we are alive, and capable of amazing things. It is up to us to decide what those things will be, and how to spend the time remaining to us.

Let’s make it wondrous.

——————————————————————–
“Below the surface, the oxidizing metal parts of chemical alley will provide a place for Galveston oysters to attach. Silt and oyster shells will slowly bury them, and will then be buried themselves. Within a few million years, enough layers will amass to compress shells into limestone, which will bear an odd, intermittent rusty streak with sparkling traces of nickel, molybdenum, niobium, and chromium. Millions of years after that, someone or something might have the knowledge and tools to recognize the signal of stainless steel. Nothing, however, will remain to suggest that its original form once stood tall over a place called Texas, and breathed fire into the sky.”
– Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
——————————————————————–

Alan Weisman on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Wikipedia
The World Without Us on Amazon.com
The World Without Us homepage

And if the sure and certain knowledge of your own eventual cessation has got you low, watch this. It might cheer you up a bit….

Leave a comment

Filed under Alan Weisman, biology, evolution, finitude, geology, science

Review 87: A Short History of Nearly Everything


A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

This book absolutely lives up to its title, except possibly the “short” part. The hardcover clocks in at 544 pages, including notes and index, which makes it quite luggable. I suppose, however, when compared to the geologic ages that preceded our brief existence on this earth, the book and the years it took to write it are indeed quite short. In those 544 pages, however, we explore everything, from the dawn of time up until the dawn of human history, from the infinitely tiny hearts of quarks to the infinitely huge scale of the universe. Biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology – whatever your science of choice is, it’s in this book. And even if you’re thinking, “Science really isn’t my thing,” I have good news for you – it will be when you’re finished.

One of the things that makes Bryson an excellent writer is simply his ability to make you enjoy reading his work, no matter what the topic is. He’s most well known for his travel books, such as Notes from a Big Country and A Walk in the Woods, as well as his books on the English language, such as Mother Tongue. When I first read him, he struck me as a more literate version of Dave Barry – a very intelligent guy with a fantastic sense of humor. No matter what he writes, you can’t help but enjoy it.

This book, then, must have been a massive challenge for him. He admits right in the beginning that, before he started this book, he pretty much had no idea what he was going to find out. He wasn’t a scientist or a naturalist, and had no idea how it was that we knew, for example, that the Earth had an iron core, or how we knew that the universe was expanding or why uranium was so easy to split up. How do we know that the continents drift across the face of the globe, or that we really are cousins to chimpanzees? He started from a state of ignorance, and spent three years removing himself from that state.

That, in and of itself, is admirable. There seems to be an unfortunate trend in thinking that science is too hard for the normal person to understand. In some cases people believe that if it is indeed too hard for the normal person to understand then, why, it must be impossible to understand. This is the “argument from ignorance” fallacy, and it’s something that’s easy to fall prey to. After all, no one likes to admit that they don’t know things, and if your pride is bigger than your conscience it might be all too easy to assume that if you can’t understand it then no one can. Thus the whole Intelligent Designer nonsense and the continuing battles…. in the TWENTY-FIRST GODSDAMNED CENTURY…. over whether or not evolution is the process by which we can explain the fantastic diversity of life on this planet.

Sorry about that. The neurochemical processes that allowed my distant ancestors to fight off predators (AKA the famous “fight or flight reflex”) tends to manifest itself these days as blasphemy and shouting. I’ll try and keep it down from now on.

If you’re like me, and you’ve been a dabbler in science for a long time, you’ll still learn something new. Not the least of what you will learn is what the Greatest Scientific Minds of our Time were like as people. Bryson does his best to bring out the humanity of people like Newton, Lowell, Einstein, Kelvin and everyone else. There’s a whole lot of fighting, lying, deceiving and backstabbing that brought us to where we are today, and if they had taught me that in science class when I was a kid, I probably would have gotten better grades.

In fact, one of the most interesting things about this book is that it’s not so much a book about science as it’s a book about scientists. By looking at the people who figured out how the universe works, we learned about why science works the way it does – and sometimes doesn’t – and get a real sense of how human understanding progresses. There are flashes of insight and stubborn refusals to see what is plainly true. There are lost geniuses and shameless opportunists, missed chances and serendipitous discoveries. Science, in short, is a human endeavor, with all the glamor and tarnish that comes with it. By emphasizing the humanity of the men and women who have driven science forward, Bryson is able to let us see our own place in the process.

What’s more, Bryson takes great care to point out the areas where we have failed, or at least not yet succeeded. Cells, for example, are baffling organic machines that outperform human-made devices by an outlandish margin. We don’t know as much as we think about pre-history – our fossil record is far more spotty than the Natural History Museum would have you believe, mainly because fossilization requires very specific conditions, not the least of which is a bit of good luck. There could be entire branches of the tree of life that we don’t know because they had the misfortune to occupy an environment that didn’t promote fossilization. We don’t even know how many species of life are on Earth right now – or how many we’ve lost.

The history of humanity is twisted and confusing, with no clear answers as to where we came from, how we arose and how we spread across the globe. There are so many mysteries to be solved, and so few people available to solve them.

If you’re not a science nerd, you’ll still enjoy the book. Remember – up until he wrote it, Bryson was one of you. His style is very readable, and he guides you very deftly from one topic to the next, illustrating a very important point: all science is connected. There is no discrete boundary between, say, chemistry and biology (no matter what the chemists and biologists might tell you), just a fuzzy blur where we pass from one to the other. The greatest advances in our knowledge of how the universe works have come from the most unlikely places, and sometimes knowing why atoms behave the way they do can help understand why the universe behaves the way it does.

Yes, learning is hard. But when you’re done, you are rewarded with a new sense of understanding and awe about how the universe works. And that wins over ignorance any day.

———————————————–
“We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?”
– Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
———————————————–

Bill Bryson on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on Amazon.com
Bill Bryson’s website

3 Comments

Filed under Bill Bryson, history, science